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'Homebody/Kabul': Theater of Cultural War
The confluence of events is startling.
Two years ago Tony Kushner, one of America's most ambitious and provocative playwrights, wrote a monologue about a London woman obsessed with a country she has never visited. Kushner later expanded the piece to a full-length, multi-character, nearly four-hour evening. The off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop offered to produce the play, the latest from the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist.
Wednesday night, even as the U.S. continues to absorb the events of Sept. 11 and ongoing geopolitical lessons about Afghanistan, Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul" made its world premiere.
At the climax of this uneven, often inspired play about a woman's mysterious disappearance in Kabul, a Taliban soldier holds a rifle to an Afghan woman's head while a horrified British father and daughter wonder what to do about it. The scene is a highly charged exception to Kushner's mournful and elegiac ruminations en route.
Still, this is a play, completed long before Sept. 11, referring to the Taliban, Kabul and Osama bin Laden. Any such work is traipsing through an ideological minefield.
At a time when the usual quotient of skepticism regarding America's foreign policy has been muffled by an unofficial edict from above--America, love it or shut up--Kushner both loves it and refuses to shut up. Politicians, academics and telegenic pundits have weighed in on the current mood in America. But little has been heard from artists and playwrights on the order of Kushner.
While his play has been revised and trimmed in recent weeks, the changes, says Kushner, are unrelated to recent events. Still, it is the product of astounding timeliness. It is the cultural artifact of the moment.
Set in 1998 and 1999, "Homebody/Kabul" is Kushner's first full-length original work since 1992's "Angels in America." (His mid-1990s "Slavs!" was a long one-act.) With the two-part, seven-hour epic, which wrestled with AIDS, lost angels and the Reagan presidency, Kushner made a splash unequaled in contemporary American theater. His blend of poetry, pulp and politics teemed with a roiling sense of American life.
Cooler and less effective than "Angels," "Homebody/Kabul" brings a passionate, critical voice to the conversation about world events. In the play, Kushner wrestles with his own complicated attitudes about a land whose destiny has been shaped by superpowers with agendas. The Kabul we see here is a place of great history and great cruelty, where Eastern and Western characters alike search for redemption in God or heroin or other people.
Any new play about personal and global politics is cause for celebration, says playwright Arthur Miller, whose drama "The Crucible," inspired by the anti-Communist witch hunts of the early 1950s, is headed to Broadway this spring in a revival directed by Richard Eyre.
"These days the theaters don't want to alienate any part of their audience," Miller says. "As soon as you raise any issue, some part of the audience isn't going to want to hear about it. They're going to take offense.
"Theater today tends to be very timorous. It's scared. I think the movies and television are far more alert to what's going on in the world, crazy as that sounds."
By Kushner's own description, "Homebody/Kabul" is "long and difficult and dark." In Act 1, the homebody (played by Linda Emond) unfurls a deceptively chipper monologue about her fascination with an outdated travel book, "An Historical Guide to Kabul." Her lengthy quotations describe a legacy of ravagement and bloodletting. She alludes also to her own crabbed existence, her aloof husband, a wayward daughter and a recent visit to a London shop run by an Afghan refugee.
The shopkeeper was missing three fingers on his right hand. The homebody imagines herself a fluent speaker of the Pashto language and channels the man's anguish: "Look, look at my country, look at my Kabul, my city, what is left of my city . . . there is no life here only fear, we do not live in the buildings now, we live in terror in the cellars in the caves in the mountains."
The homebody travels, at last, to Kabul and disappears. She may have been murdered by a group of young Taliban men, "rough boys." She may have fallen in love with a Muslim doctor and, in effect, changed her identity. The missing woman's husband (Dylan Baker) and daughter (Kelly Hutchinson) travel to Afghanistan to learn the truth.
An avowed socialist, Kushner has long been an outspoken critic of American political machinery, particularly Republican-made machinery. In an e-mail to The Times, he chided the Bush administration for its "refusal to commit America to a course of responsible global citizenry" in its foreign and domestic policies.
Kushner's play is clearly not on the side of the Taliban, though it takes pains to humanize (or at least to not demonize) what these bumbling English citizens abroad see as The Other.
The first mention of the word "Taliban" comes in a reference to a mass grave of murdered Talibans, prisoners of war dug up in northern Afghanistan. The play takes pains to impart a sense of knotty tribal factions and dialects; some of the dialogue is delivered in Farsi and Pashto and French, sometimes translated, sometimes not.
Kushner wrote the play partly in response to the 1998 U.S. cruise missile attack on Afghanistan, in which terrorist training camps were targeted after the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. As one Kushner creation, Mullah Ali Aftar Durranni (the splendid Firdous Bamji) says, calmly: "The people are very angry against Western aggression-disregard-disrespect for Afghanistan."
There's a touch of Graham Greene in certain narrative flourishes, such as the heroin-addicted British aid worker (Bill Camp) who falls for the seething daughter.
The results are overstuffed, sometimes dreamily improbable, just as often beautifully wrought and dazzlingly smart.
The play contains at least one already famously prescient line, spoken by an Afghan woman suffering under Taliban rule. She reminds her London visitors that the United States supports the Taliban. You like them so much? Why don't you bring them to New York? The woman then answers her own spitefully rhetorical question with:
"Don't worry, they're coming to New York!"
In director Declan Donnellan's staging, the line isn't pointed up; it's more of a quick jab--did I hear what I think I heard? Later, the same character considers the fate of her homeland. "Will Afghanistan without the Taliban sink again into unending civil war, with missiles supplied by the West?"
This isn't the sort of thing many Americans want to confront right now, as the war on terrorism wears on. And yet, the world premiere's run has already been extended through Feb. 10.
Before Sept. 11, two major regional theaters announced productions of the play. One version opens in March at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I.; another opens in April at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. An Old Vic staging in London is in the works. The Mark Taper Forum, which premiered the two halves of "Angels in America" in 1992, has expressed interest in a Los Angeles premiere.
So the play will find more than one audience. But like any theatrical event blessed or cursed by topicality, it faces a question: Can it outlive its moment?
"To understand why something lasts is very difficult," says playwright Miller, who hasn't seen Kushner's latest but considers him "a very good writer."
"I don't think that being topical needs to limit a play's longevity, or enhance it either," Miller says. "There's something else involved, and that is whether there are some basic human truths in the play, deeper than the passing moment. If that's the case, maybe a play will last."