In March 2020, “Selling Kabul” was just two weeks from starting previews when the theater industry suddenly went dark.
The set — a modest living room in the Afghan capital — sat empty for over 19 months, another abandoned apartment in Midtown Manhattan. Still, the cast and crew stayed in touch, regularly video chatting and sharing their ongoing research.
But in August, when the United States ended its longest war and the Taliban took over, their conversations changed. What did their play mean now, in this new geopolitical reality? Had their duty to their characters changed? What memories and frustrations would audiences now be bringing to the performance?
“We were in almost daily contact about the changing situation in Afghanistan,” the director, Tyne Rafaeli, said, “and starting to understand and analyze how that changing situation was going to affect our play.”
Sylvia Khoury, the playwright, also wrestled with the new resonance of her work. Ultimately, she decided not to alter the text, wanting to honor the historical moment and the individual experiences that had generated it.
“The time that we’re in really colors certain moments of the play in different ways,” Khoury said in a video interview last month after the show began previews. “I haven’t changed them. A play is a fixed thing, as history continues.”
“Selling Kabul” takes place in 2013, as the Obama administration began its long withdrawal of troops. Khoury wrote it in 2015, after speaking with several interpreters waiting for Special Immigrant Visas. And because that visa program, created by Congress to give refuge to Afghans and Iraqis who helped the U.S. military, requires rigorous vetting, many have been stuck in bureaucratic limbo for years. Now many American allies and partners remain in the country, potentially vulnerable to Taliban reprisals.
“That time elapsed really speaks to a profound moral failure,” Khoury said. “That time elapsing, in itself, really showed us our own shame.”
“Selling Kabul,” a Playwrights Horizons production that opened earlier this month and is scheduled to close Dec. 23, shines a light on the human cost of America’s foreign conflicts. It neither reprimands its audience nor offers catharsis. Instead, Khoury delivers an intense, intimate look at four people caught in a web of impossible choices.
“If I still bit my nails I would have no nails left now,” Alexis Soloski wrote in her review for The New York Times.
Afghanistan Under Taliban Rule
With the departure of the U.S. military on Aug. 30, Afghanistan quickly fell back under control of the Taliban. Across the country, there is widespread anxiety about the future.
In the play, Taroon, who was an interpreter for the U.S. military, is waiting for a promised visa. He has just become a father — his wife had their son just before the play starts — but he cannot be with them. He’s in hiding at his sister Afiya’s apartment, where he has been holed up for four months hoping to evade the Taliban. But on this evening, they seem to be growing closer and closer.
Taroon has to leave Kabul. And he has to leave soon.
“Beyond the headlines, this play homes in on the detail, the intense detail of how this foreign policy affects these four people, on this day, in this apartment,” Rafaeli said.
Told in real time, the 95-minute play is performed without an intermission. As fear intensifies and violence creeps closer, the four characters fight to keep secrets, and to keep one another alive, but they are also forced to make decisions that could endanger the others.
“There’s not really one bad person, and they’re not just in a difficult circumstance; they’re in an impossible circumstance,” said Marjan Neshat, who plays Afiya.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the tone of the play, too. During an earlier run in 2019 at the Williamstown Theater Festival, audiences could only imagine Taroon’s claustrophobia. Now, they can remember. Khoury said she hopes that viewers come away with an understanding of how their individual actions can affect people they will never meet.
“As Americans, we used to think it was enough to tend our own gardens,” Khoury said. “Now, I think we’re realizing: It’s not even close to enough.”
Khoury wrote “Selling Kabul” while in medical school at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Pulling from conversations with Afghan interpreters, and from her own family history, she weaves a nuanced portrait of the myth of America.
“No one that I ever spoke to was ever unclear that they wanted to come to America,” she said. “It was safer for them.”
In the play, Afiya’s neighbor Leyla remembers the soldiers as fun, even handsome. Afiya — who speaks English better than Taroon does, despite being forced out of school when the Taliban took control in the 1990s — thinks Americans are untrustworthy.
“To me, America is just the great abandoner,” said Neshat, explaining her character’s view. “Like, ‘You promised this thing that you could never fulfill. And, how dare you?’”
And for Taroon, America is a promise. “America, their word is good,” he tells Afiya.
When “Selling Kabul” was first performed at the Williamstown Theater Festival, Donald Trump was president. That was a laugh line. Now, there aren’t many chuckles, but Taroon’s conviction still stings.
“Our word still is not good,” Khoury said. “That’s something that’s difficult to admit on this side of the political spectrum.”
Realizing that her play might leave audience members wondering what they can do to help, Khoury started a private fund-raiser for the International Refugee Assistance Project, which will follow the play as it moves to other cities. Information about the charity is tucked inside each Playbill.
“Not giving people somewhere to go after felt like a missed opportunity,” Khoury said.
The playwright also held up a moral mirror to audiences in “Power Strip,” a story about Syrian refugees at a migrant camp in Greece, which debuted at Lincoln Center in 2019. In “Selling Kabul,” her characters also stand on the precipice of leaving almost everything they know.
“The stories of how we left are the fabric of my childhood, from country to country, in pretty extreme circumstances,” said Khoury, who is of Lebanese and French descent, and whose family has been affected by colonial and imperial shifts across the Middle East and North Africa.
“Who are you, before you leave? Who is the person who makes the decision to go?” she said, adding, “And it’s without saying goodbye, in most of the stories I know. It’s immediately. It’s taking the first truck you can.”
As audiences filed out of the theater after a recent performance, one friend turned to another. Where do you think they are now? she wondered. What happened to them?
For Neshat, who was born in Iran and moved to the United States when she was 8, that’s almost too painful to think about.
“How do you choose between your best friend neighbor and your brother?” she said of the play’s excruciating dilemmas. “Like, how do you do that?”