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“America’s word is good.” The line from Sylvia Khoury’s play Selling Kabul, now in a stirring production at Signature Theatre, is bound to earn a wry laugh from audiences who know what the characters are only just beginning to grasp: Some promises are bound to be broken.
Selling Kabul takes place in 2013 and revolves around Taroon (Mazin Akar), an Afghan translator who works with the U.S. military. With the vengeful Taliban on his tail, Taroon is forced to shelter in place with his sister Afiya (Awesta Zarif) and brother-in-law Jawid (Yousof Sultani) in their cramped Kabul apartment. It’s a distressing arrangement in the best of times, but with his wife having just given birth to a son, Taroon is more desperate than ever to secure the Special Immigrant Visa the U.S. promised to him so he can whisk his young family to safety. The problem is that any false move—even raising his voice or turning on the TV—risks giving away his position and jeopardizing everyone who has labored to keep him safe. It doesn’t help that Afiya and Jawid’s gregarious neighbor Leyla (Neagheen Homaifar) keeps impressing herself upon her friends, pushing the couple to take desperate measures to hide their wanted man. As the tension rises, Afiya extends their web of lies to the point of hiding the truth even from Taroon himself, forcing them all to reckon with how much they have compromised and how much more they will risk just to stay alive.
The enormous weight on these characters is made starkly and immediately clear in the compressed space that houses them, finely realized in Tony Cisek’s set design and made especially claustrophobic in Signature’s ARK space. While the functional appliances and flair for detail add much needed verisimilitude, the set’s low ceiling and shallow floor suggest this narrow slice of Kabul is being literally flattened, intensifying what is already a pressure cooker of a play.
Akar and Zarif make compelling siblings, alternately caring, playful and provocative, yet their easy familiarity quickly gives way to a cascade of arguments and deeply held secrets made all the more fraught by their confines. While Khoury’s play nearly overstays its welcome by returning to familiar flashpoints and tying up loose ends, it thrums with tension and pops with insight and humor. Homaifar’s fussy Leyla, shaded with a bit of the stereotypical nosy neighbor that belies much deeper waters beneath the surface, is a welcome jolt to proceedings. Sultani, meanwhile, is moving as Jawid, a man whose amiable demeanor is evidently an asset when making peace, but whose choice to sellout his home by stitching Taliban uniforms in exchange for safety leaves him riddled with shame. Few ensembles are as well balanced, and it’s a credit to Shadi Ghaheri’s careful, clear direction that each actor gets a chance to shine.
The beating heart of it all is beleaguered Afiya, whose compassion and composure are tested not only by familial demands but by the sense that her home is being ripped apart. As cultural advisor and dramaturg Humaira Ghilzai notes in the program, Afghan culture places high value on hospitality, and Afiya’s is tested at every level. That she is consistently forced to choose who she will honor first—her guest and companion, Leyla; her husband, a protector but also a collaborator; her brother, a risk but also her flesh and blood—is a fitting metaphor for a country that has for decades been ravaged by the competing demands of occupiers and extremists. What the characters could only know later is that the situation gets even worse following the calamitous withdrawal of the United States, the collapse of the ostensible democratic government, and the resurgence of the Taliban. At its best, the play, unfolding so near the seat of our nation’s power, makes the situation in Afghanistan more tangible to an American audience than the news blasts that faded into static as America’s longest war trudged on.
In the sure hands of Ghaheri and her exceptional cast, Signature’s production of Selling Kabul is the rare slice of “kitchen sink realism” that truly clarifies what, to many, is so often abstract. It’s especially appropriate that the play centers the demands placed on one’s hosts, as the onus is now on the U.S. government to pour a glass of tea and welcome those who risked everything to aid it—and those who were displaced in the process. The rest of us can consult the list of Impactful Organizations provided by Signature or at the very least make plans to see this vital show for ourselves.
Sylvia Khoury’s Selling Kabul, directed by Shadhi Ghaheri, runs at Signature Theatre through April 2. sigtheatre.org. $40–$98.