The Tricycle Theater's production, "The Great Game: Afghanistan", can only be called an epic play. During the three-part play audience members are taken on an ambitious journey through the last 150-years of Afghanistan's history. The play is written by 12 distinct playwrights with the goal of immersing audience members into Afghanistan's complicated legacy of occupation and resistance. This weekend marks the play's final U.S. run at New York University's Skirball Center.
"Information sparks debate and theater is often a catalyst, but how to tackle Afghanistan," muses Nicholas Kent, director of London's Tricycle Theater. In 2008 Kent noticed a dearth of debate and a gap of artistic works about Afghanistan. He began a series of conversations with various dramatists. "It slowly became evident that this was not something that should take place on one evening. I wanted to commission something where people would stay with the subject for a period of time," said Kent. And stay with the subject they do. This weekend's audience was immersed in nine hours of theater.
When discussing the play's ethos, Kent said he wanted to preserve the unique voice of each of the writers. "None of the playwrights knew what period between 1846 and 1996 they others were tackling. I was trying to keep them from influencing one-another." The writers studied Afghanistan's literary works, the Anglo-Afghan wars between Britain and Russian as well as U.S. involvement with the Mujahideen against Soviet forces during the Cold War. While "The Great Game" falls under the genre of political theater, Kent's choice to allow each play to standalone gives the work dynamic variety.
Pieces like "Black Tulip" by David Edgar, use large historical paint strokes of military dialogue to educate the audience about the international affairs of the time. Others, like "Miniskirts of Kabul" written by David Greig, use the power of imagination to create an intimate portrait of late Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah. Najibullah was the last president backed by the Soviet Union. When the Taliban took power in 1996 he was murdered. When arguing with an imagined British woman, Najibullah's character poignantly said, "My country has been imagined enough. My country is the creation of foreign imaginings." An emergent theme in several of these vignettes is that Afghanistan is a place that outsiders don't understand, a place they pretend to know, for their own gain.
While Timothy Barry, an audience member from New York, was disappointed in the first act he said, "I loved the second act." He went on to say he was compelled by the human story. "The complete experience is seeing the parts together. It's best when you commit to the full day experience," said Molly Michal, arts officer for the British Council, a non-profit organization that sponsored the play's U.S. tour. Michal said audience members get a deeper understanding of what's happened in Afghanistan because of the insights created through people, not the ideas. Actor Nabil Elouahabi, a British citizen from Morocco, said he was thrilled to be a part of the play. "You use your own tools to bring a discourse to the public."
Kent said his goal was to instigate debate and felt the run had been a success. "If you read something in the newspaper or watch it on TV, you can turn the page or switch the channel. When you go to the theater you're going to stay with it out of necessity. People talk about it during the interval and after when they go home. It's a much deeper experience."