William Mastrosimone Return to Kabul: An Outspoken Playwright Realizes His Fate Is in Afghanistan
Evered, Charles, American Theatre
When you sit down with William Mastrosimone, you'd better hold onto your seat. No topic is off limits to the 56-year-old playwright (Extremities, Bang Bang You're Dead), and he's got a muscular, informed opinion on most things you're likely to bring up. Discuss the war on terror and you'll find yourself hearing about the history of the Roman army. Chat about Greek poets and he'll wax poetic on the lyricism of fellow New Jersey scribe Bruce Springsteen. Talk about world culture and the plight of a place near and dear to his heart will come up: Afghanistan.
Mastrosimone has had connections with Afghanistan for years. In 1981, long before the country dominated American headlines, the playwright was spending time with Mujahadeen rebels who were fighting the Soviet occupation. In 1984 he wrote a play called Nanawatai (the title borrows the Pashtun word for "sanctuary") that dealt with the Soviet invasion. Now he's revisiting the country again, both in his writing and in his travels. This past January he visited Kabul and presented a brand new play, The Afghan Women, among the ruins of the Kabul Theatre, which had been destroyed, along with most of the rest of the capital city, during the 1992-96 civil war.
Mastrosimone wrote The Afghan Women as a fundraiser for the benefit of Afghan orphans. But the play, about an Afghan woman who confronts and kills a powerful warlord in the post-9/11 era, has blossomed into a work that the Philadelphia Inquirer compared to Greek tragedy--"passionately written and forcefully delivered by vividly drawn characters." Produced at the Passage Theatre of Trenton, N.J.; the Harper Joy Theatre in Walla Walla, Wash.; the University of Washington, in Bellingham, Wash.; and elsewhere, the play has been optioned for Broadway by the producing team of Fred Zollo, Frank Gero and Eric Krebs. Upon the playwright's return from Kabul, I sat down with him to talk about his connection to Afghanistan.
When did you first feel yourself drawn to Afghanistan?
In 1980. I was just starting my career as a writer. I remember I was in rehearsal for The Woolgatherer at Circle Repertory Company, and it was the year Mt. St. Helens exploded. Ash that spewed up from that volcano rained down on New York City in subtle streaks on taxi cab windows--that's how I remember it. I remember making that connection, that events many thousands of miles away on one side of the planet had a very definite effect on the other side. And the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on the other side of the world was having a great effect on me, over here. I found myself more absorbed in the battles between the freedom fighters and the Soviets than in creative battles in rehearsals. I knew nothing about Afghanistan, but when I read an article quoting an Afghan commander who said that his fighters were eating tree bark to survive, I knew who they were. They were the counterparts of young soldiers who followed George Washington--blacksmiths and farm boys who grabbed the musket from over the hearth to rid the land of another superpower.
Having an emotional connection is one thing--traveling to the other side of the world to participate in a resistance movement is another. How did that happen?
I was astonished by the blatant disregard the American media had for the war, which American correspondents covered only sporadically. As an artist, I was drawn into that vacuum of knowledge. I became obsessed; I dreamed of Afghanistan; I read about Afghanistan; and in the end I believed it was my fate to be there. One night, fast asleep, I heard a whisper. The whisperer said one word: Go. Maybe it was the ghost of Hemingway. Remember his dictum: Write what you know. How do you get to know Afghanistan? You go. Anything else is a sham.
The Woolgatherer opened and was well received. While in New York I sought out Afghans. I frequented Afghan restaurants. I befriended waiters who were born in Afghanistan. …