By Mukul Khurana
Now that we are at war with Afghanistan, we are bound to find out a lot more about their culture. It is a cynical commentary on our society, but we don’t tend to acknowledge countries and cultures until we are at war with them—take Vietnam, Korea, and Iraq for instance—for us, they didn’t “exist” until we bombed them.
The dark aspect fascinating us now about Afghan culture is a practice called Bacha Bazi (known as “boy play” – a centuries old tradition wherein older men engage younger boys as dancers, singers, and, sometimes, sexually…). Ask the men who follow the tradition and they will tell you about mentorship and the chance for a good life they provide the young boys.
The Boy Who Danced on Air written by Tim Rosser (Music) and Charlie Sohne (Book and Lyrics) is an extraordinary piece. It focuses on the practice of Bacha Bazi, but comments on so much more. Directed by Tony Speciale, this musical also deals with the dreams of the Afghans—so much has been promised and so little delivered.
Paiman (Troy Iwata) is the main character in this play. Like others of his kind, he has been bought from circumstances of poverty. He was, then, trained as a dancer (and a companion). His master’s name is Jahanda ( Jonathan Raviv)—and his dreams are also part of the story. He plays cards with his humorous cousin Zemar (M. Keala Milles, Jr.) who, in turn, tells the jokes that keep the mood from getting too dark. Zemar also has a dancing boy, Feda (Sittchai Chaiyahat), who is feistier than the more sensitive Paiman. Last but not least, there is a man just known as The Unknown Man (Koray Tarhan) who plays a mysterious but important role in this excellent play.
This piece has many elements, including flawless acting. The band consisting of PJ Bovee (Guitar), Jay Hemphill (Bass), Natalka Kytasty (Violin), and Dan Ochipinti (Percussion) accompany the song and the dance with great subtlety. As they say, “musicians should be heard and not seen.” These musicians practice their craft behind a curtain without intruding on the dialogue, acting or dancing. Which brings us to another aspect of The Boy Who Danced on Air—the dancing. Credit goes to Nejla Y. Yatkin (Choreography) and Chris O’Bryson (Musical Direction). The dancing and music are as authentic as can be, and so are the clothes chosen by Shirley Pierson (Costume Designer). Diversionary has paid great attention to detail.
The deeper levels to this play are many. We are talking about exploitation and brutalizing of young boys by older men as part of a tradition (but it is couched in noble terms such as mentoring). The larger parallel that can’t escape most of the audience is the relationship of the occupying forces in Afghanistan. It is a similar kind of exploitation – with brutalizing and false promises – but we call it nation-building. When warfare is used for anything but defense, it results in not so noble outcomes.
The authors of the play manage to convey a “fair and objective” portrayal of contemporary Afghanistan. We don’t just focus on the “culpability” of the older men, but also on our own culpability as part of a series of invaders. As mentioned, we are the present occupiers. Before us, it was the Soviets. Before them, there was the British…
It “takes a whole village to raise a theatre production.” Wen-Ling Liao (Lighting Designer) and Kevin Anthenill (Sound Designer) do the necessary to assure the audience that just the right amount of darkness is shown to accentuate the “bare” mood. The sounds of the setting complement the music. Matt M. Morrow (Executive Artistic director) is to be congratulated for taking Diversionary Theatre in a brave new direction. It isn’t easy exploring themes that are provocative and don’t guarantee an audience.
We are lucky that San Diego is evolving into a refined theatre community. Diversionary Theatre has always been on the forefront of challenging work. It just got more interesting. The same can be said about La Jolla Playhouse. They are not playing it safe alone in order to hang on to their audience. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the other major player in our city – Old Globe – they like to stick to the “tried and true.”
Support progressive theatre. The Boy Who Danced on Air runs May 24th – June 12th at Diversionary.