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'Love in Afghanistan': History, violence, emotion, love

Tuesday - 10/29/2013, 8:08am  ET

Khris Davis as Duke and Melis Aker as Roya in Love in Afghanistan at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Courtesy Teresa Wood)

Heather Brady, special to wtop

WASHINGTON - It is somewhat unusual to walk into a professional theater and hear Eminem playing in the background when a solid percent of the audience is your grandparents' age.

In spite of the generational gap, "Love in Afghanistan" still charmed and moved its audience. It subverts expectations by taking a relatively predictable love story -- two very different people from different worlds falling in love -- and throwing in unexpected, and at times, heart-wrenching twists.

The play focuses on the attraction between Duke, a famous American rap artist who comes to Afghanistan to perform for the troops at Bagram Air Force Base outside of Kabul, and Roya, a female Afghan translator working for the troops and staying at the base for protection.

From the moment the play begins, Duke is charming, cheeky and somewhat na´ve, while Roya is tougher, but in a more teasing way.

She makes Duke "work for it," as he says, a new concept for him because the famous rapper usually gets everything he wants.

Both of them have a hard time opening up to other people, though, which is why their genuine openness with each other is so disarming.

Surrounded by a minimalist set that easily fluctuates between scenes in a variety of locations, the actors and actresses pull the audience into the play, relying on imagination and interaction more than props.

The effect is masterful, showcasing the playwright's storytelling capabilities and the actors' skills.

As Roya and Duke fall for each other, he reveals his intelligence, which Roya noticed in the subtext of his music.

"Why don't you say more up front [in your rap music]?" Roya asks Duke. "Because then I know people won't listen," he responds.

Duke even recites passages from the Afghan poet Rumi to Roya, winning her over because she says poetry is the way art has survived in her beloved country, despite the Taliban's attempts to get rid of it.

The recurring theme of cross-dressing, an Afghan practice called bacha posh where girls dress as boys until puberty to bring their family honor if their parents bore no sons, serves as a plot point many times during the performance.

Duke's mom compares Roya's bacha posh to "passing," a phenomenon where light- skinned black people "pass" as white people in order to live an easier life or to gain the advantages that come with white privilege.

Add in all the references to history, culture and the current violence in the Middle East, and the play becomes quite educational in a subtle, conversational way.

Duke's character provides a lens through which American audiences can comprehend Roya's life. Roya and Duke each have their own ways of conquering a seemingly cruel, violent world -- Duke raps and Roya works as an underground activist for women's rights.

Duke asks how Roya lives with the violence every day, a sentiment echoed in the hearts of many around the world.

"You just keep going," Roya says. "Living in fear means that you have given up. Living with fear means that you will survive ... I am afraid, but my fear of not doing what needs to be done is greater."

"Love in Afghanistan" was written by Charles Randolph-Wright, an American playwright, but the research behind the play -- from Afghan history to former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano's notes -- grounded it in experience and knowledge of the country. And it shows.

The play was so moving that the cast received a standing ovation from almost the entire theater when they took their final bow.

"No matter how hard they try to silence us, we will be heard," Roya says toward the end of the play. "No matter how hard they try to cover us up, we will be seen."

This play lets the audience see her, and all of the real women she represents. Its ultimate success is revealing that raw, haunting truth.

"Love in Afghanistan" plays at Arena Stage through Nov. 17.

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