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'Love in Afghanistan': A Cross Cultural Romance

Eve M. Ferguson | 11/6/2013, 3 p.m.
Khris Davis plays Duke and Melis Aker plays Roya in "Love in Afghanistan" at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Southwest. The show runs through Sunday, Nov. 17. (Teresa Wood)

The plot is age-old – boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, fate intervenes and the romance is doomed. But while the plot may not be new, the approach in Charles Randolph-Wright’s latest play, "Love in Afghanistan," is uncharted territory.

Better known for his directorial contributions – he’s currently preparing to take Motown the Musical on the road – Randolph-Wright’s new work combines American culture with the interface of Afghan tradition and culture, resulting from the American military presence for the past decade plus.

Starring newcomer to the Arena Stage, Khris Davis as Duke, a rapper sent to Afghanistan to entertain the troops, and Turkish actress Melis Aker, also making her debut at Arena Stage as Roya, his Afghan interpreter, the budding romance between the two seems unlikely, but ensues nonetheless with awkward moments, cultural misunderstandings and eventually, mutual attraction. As Roya and Duke come to know each other better, they set off on a venture off-base and into Kabul, against Roya’s warning, to purchase a lapis lazuli stone.

In the background are their parents – Duke’s mother, Desiree, played by Dawn Ursula (also making her Arena debut) and Sayeed, played by Joseph Kamal. And if the interaction between Roya and Duke seems standard fare, the two other actors steal the show with sophisticated and plausible dialogue voicing parental concern for their children, whom they both view as naïve.

After Duke is injured in an explosion in Kabul, in which Roya has dressed as a man to escort him into town, the parents step in to find out why their children have set out into the face of danger on what should have been a rather benign visit to the military base.

We find out that Duke is actually the son of an English/Jamaican World Bank executive who grew up in Washington’s upper class Gold Coast neighborhood. Ursula plays the role to the hilt, and is animated and humorous as Duke’s mother, who sometimes requests that she be introduced as his sister.

She mastered the role, which seems to flow naturally, by “Dialect coaching (thank you Gary Logan!), watching You Tube videos (it’s amazing all the different personalities there are available to watch) and, most importantly (for me), digging into what the playwright has written and also what the playwright hasn't written but just alluded to,” Ursula said. “Not every historical moment for a character is spelled out or explained in a script, but if my character refers to something in the past I have to know exactly what that is and what it means to me now.”

Sayeed falls into the role of a rigid Afghan father, who, while allowing his daughter to expand beyond the usual boundaries of tradition, also keeps reigns on her when it comes to exceeding her duties. We find out through their conversation that Roya also engaged in an Afghan tradition, where a family that has no sons allows girls to dress as boys. This tradition afforded Roya the opportunity to receive an education when many Afghan women can not, and travel freely outside. It also encouraged the young woman to become involved in advancing the plight of Afghan women, which becomes the driving force in her life, and the deterrent to actualization of the romance with Duke.

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