Sylvia Khoury’s play ‘Selling Kabul’ at Northern Stage illuminates the Afghan experience
With support from cultural consultant Humaira Ghilzai, Northern Stage’s ‘Selling Kabul’ hopes that audiences leave reflecting on the human toll of the war in Afghanistan and the effects of U.S. involvement.
Courtesy of Mark Washburn
On Saturday, the White River Junction-based theater company Northern Stage kicked off its season with the opening night of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize finalist play “Selling Kabul,” offering a powerful glimpse into the lived impact of the U.S. involvement in the War in Afghanistan.
The play follows the emotional journey of actor Nima Rakhshanifar’s character Taroon, an ex-military interpreter employed by the U.S. government who has been forced into long-term hiding, as he, his sister, her husband and a family friend navigate this period of fear and uncertainty.
As affirmed by the hired cultural consultant and dramaturg Humaira Ghilzai’s work, Taroon’s situation is paradigmatic of the stakes faced by the thousands of local Afghan volunteers and recruits who aided the American soldiers once their contracts ended in 2021-2022 — their fates markedly different from that of the American soldiers, with whom close bonds were often formed.
Taroon’s circumstances, as revealed through his illuminating conversations with his sister, also reflect the tragic reality of the major structural flaws of the 2009 Special Immigrant Visa program administered by the U.S. government, which egregiously prolonged or otherwise denied these vital allies the opportunity and protection of life in the States.
When Northern Stage associate artistic director Sarah Wansley first saw the production in New York in 2021, she recalled being immediately hooked and invested in bringing it to Northern Stage and its Upper Valley audiences.
“I felt like it was such an important story for every American to see,” she recalled. “I think [that] in the Upper Valley, we have so many people who are connected to a global community … so I felt like this piece was … something that our audience specifically would really connect to.”
Marketing and engagement associate and artistic team member Brandy Zhang ’22 attested to how this culturally specific story in fact strikes a chord close to home: In 2022, 260 African refugees were welcomed to the Upper Valley. Accordingly, the show has been accompanied by active community engagement efforts including connecting with the local Afghan community and raising awareness.
“We try to become a medium through which people can access real-life organizations, or events or actions outside of the premises of the play,” Zhang said.
Notably, this production experience was the closest that Northern Stage has worked with a cultural consultant, according to Wansley. She said that Ghilzai was deeply involved in every part of the design process, including the costumes and set to ensure the authenticity of the cultural representation.
Ghilzai weighed in on the details, ranging from the color of the traditional garment Taroon dons, to the style of pillow and even faucet found in the kitchen. Schwartz recalled Ghilzai even helping choose the type of plastic bag used.
Wansley also described how the visible imprint of culture extends to the apartment’s walls, which boast a stitched tapestry evoking the Asian country in terms of both its artistic allusion to the nation’s mountainous landscape and the traditional prominence of tapestry as an art.
One distinctive design choice was making the closet in which Taroon actively hides at moments in the play a visible extension of the stage, as opposed to off-stage like it has often been done. In doing so, the audiences were given a unique vantage point, which reflected the creativity of the set design to provide the audience with the best experience possible. This choice speaks to the team’s distinctly “poetic approach to the space,” according to Wansley.
“I’m glad [that] we [are] at least committed to trying something … as opposed to just being like, ‘let’s just keep it safe and do the apartment as written,’” Schwartz explained.
As much thought was put into casting the show as designing the set. Among the show’s cast, only one is “culturally Afghan,” according to Wansley, although all claim Middle Eastern heritage. Attesting to the broader challenge posed by the general assignment of the play, the artistic team was particularly sensitive to recognize shared cultural commonalities among Middle Eastern countries while acknowledging Afghanistan’s unique culture, some of which is described in the playbill.
“My real work with them [was] not only on pronunciation and understanding a deeper sense of the cultural context of the play so that we can make choices that would accurately reflect what a family in Afghanistan is going through, but also [recognizing] that the actors can still bring so much of who they are and their personal choices to the world of the play,” Wansley said.
Unsettlingly, the play’s opening weekend coincided with the recent devastating earthquakes in Afghanistan on Oct. 7. In response, Northern Stage raised awareness online and displayed QR codes around the theater, giving patrons the opportunity to support the cause by donating to suggested organizations.
Other recent community engagement efforts include an Afghan cultural night and a post-show talkback recently hosted by Martha Tecca, president of CommunityCare of Lyme and co-leader of the Upper Valley Neighborhood Support Team, an organization that helps welcome Afghan refugees in the region.
“A big part of [our] community engagement work is … bridging the gap within the community in terms of awareness, and then also connecting actors and creatives and crew to people who can educate us and inform us,” Zhang said. “[We’re] also extending that invitation for [Afghan locals and experts] to come and [see] Northern Stage as a space that they’re welcome in.”
Broadly, such efforts attest to the company’s driving mission, per the company’s website, of “changing lives one story at a time” — a goal which is visible in the company’s work both onstage and off, according to Wansley. Furthermore, Northern Stage members believe in the potential for a work like “Selling Kabul” to affect lives by directly inspiring action, by promoting individual cultural expansion, or by simply yet powerfully triggering an altered perception or novel awareness of local community members.
“Personally, I think [that] it is rare to see such a raw and powerful play that centers on this Central Asian/Afghan perspective in American theater,” Zhang said. “This play might not be the most exhilarating or the funniest … but it emanates life. It’s real life, and I think [that] that is something important for people to keep in mind while watching.”
Aligning with Northern Stage’s own activist orientation, both Wansley and Zhang hope that the work may inspire patrons to get involved with supporting the Afghan refugees and evacuees within the Upper Valley community. Regardless, they both alluded to the play’s meaningful impact in prompting reflections on the human toll of the war in Afghanistan as significantly affected by U.S. involvement.
“It’s one thing to read a newspaper article and hear facts, and it’s another thing to see those characters brought to life in front of you,” Wansley said. “I think that there is no way to see this play and not walk away thinking about the people of Afghanistan.”
“Selling Kabul” is now showing at Northern Stage’s Byrne Theater in White River Junction, VT from Oct. 11 through 29. Tickets start from $19, and student and youth discounts are available.