When you’re setting a play in a country you’ve never visited, it’s certainly a good idea to run the piece by people with more intimate knowledge of the place. This was the task dramatist Charles Randolph-Wright dutifully performed in getting his new work, “Love in Afghanistan,” up on its feet.
“We just got Janet’s notes,” he was informed one day at Arena Stage, where the drama, about an American rapper who falls in love with an Afghan interpreter, begins its world-premiere run Friday. The Janet in question was Janet Napolitano, who, you might be aware, recently left her post as secretary of Homeland Security and who, it is reliably reported, is both an avid theatergoer and an acquaintance of Arena’s artistic director, Molly Smith.
“There were Post-Its all over the script!” Randolph-Wright said in astonishment, sitting in a kebab restaurant around the corner from his Greenwich Village home. On one page of this copy of the script, intended for friends, he playfully inserted the name of Abu Nazir, the fictional jihadist of the Showtime series, “Homeland.”
Sure enough, Napolitano caught it and, the playwright recalled with a mischievous giggle, suggested that he find another name.
Randolph-Wright, a member of the inaugural class of resident playwrights at Arena, whose work as a writer (“Blue”) and director (“Ruined”) is well known to audiences there, didn’t consider his geographical deficits a reason not to write about one of the most embattled lands on earth. Although, of course, the prospect did give him pause. “I thought, ‘How does this black man, who now has his AARP card, tell this story?’ ” he said. He’d planned to go to Kabul this summer, but as security issues multiplied there, he scrapped the trip. And then there was the problem of Arena’s timetable: With the writing far from complete, Smith announced to him: “I’m opening the season with it.”
Some theater makers would have collapsed in a heap. But not Randolph-Wright, who on his first day of nursery school in York, S.C., a half-century ago was instructed by his mother to bring home A’s or F’s — nothing in between. “You make a statement,” she commanded. He not only obeyed, earning A’s all the way through to Duke University, he also took the words as gospel.
“I dream big,” Randolph-Wright said. “That’s what I do.”
The dreams have been coming true of late at an alarming rate. Berry Gordy, the larger-than-life record producer responsible for assembling the stable of artists who built Motown, chose Randolph-Wright over several far better-known directors to shepherd “Motown: The Musical,” the jukebox show that tells Berry’s story via hits from the ’60s and ’70s by Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, the Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder. With advance ticket sales currently somewhere north of $30 million, the show is a monster smash, of a magnitude Broadway rarely sees, and is likely to remain a fixture at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for years.
“His confidence is overwhelming,” Gordy said of Randolph-Wright by telephone from Los Angeles. This is an 83-year-old legend talking, and no slouch himself in the nerviness department. “Choosing Charles was really through instinct and intuition. He made me feel I would be crazy not to pick him.”
It took about four years from first conversation to orchestra tuneup on opening night to bring “Motown” to fruition. The experience has changed Randolph-Wright’s life. Although he always made a good living, working in theater (the original Broadway cast of “Dreamgirls”) and television (as director of episodic TV and commercials), “Motown” is the mega-hit poised to make his life extremely comfortable. He is casting a national tour of “Motown” that will start in Chicago in April, and reveling in the memories he’s generating of childhood idols bestowing their blessings on the production.
His heart pounded almost as loudly as the percussion section on the night that Diana Ross was in the theater. And when at the final curtain, she embraced the actress who portrays her, Valisia LeKae, the director almost lost it. “Everyone started letting out a good old African cry,” he said, adding as he shook his head: “In my wildest dreams. Everything flashed before my eyes.”
If there was any deflating aspect to “Motown” for him, it was the decidedly mixed reviews the show received in April. Some critics found Gordy’s book — the industry term for the script — lacking, or thought that the R&B hits had been unnecessarily truncated. (Randolph-Wright points out songs were shorter in those days, many of them only a minute to a minute and a half in duration.) The subsequent meager haul of Tony Award nominations — the show was passed over for best musical — was wounding to a theater professional accustomed to acknowledgment of his skill. For instance, his in-the-round staging at Arena of “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning account of the brutal treatment of women in war-ravaged Congo, was widely admired and in some important ways an improvement on the original New York production.
For a guy (now in his late 50s) who dreams big, recognition of the value of what he dreams about is not a minor matter. “There was no expectation that he would do anything less than succeed,” said Stephen Landrigan, a playwright and author who has known him since Randolph-Wright’s college years, when he spent his junior year studying acting in London, and Landrigan was teaching journalism there.
Randolph-Wright was born into a middle-class family in South Carolina, a family of professional people who were in the mortuary business for generations. He entered Duke thinking that he would be a doctor. But his trajectory changed after a roommate who was sick gave him his ticket to a touring production of “Pippin,” a coming-of-age musical whose central figure is a Player — originated on Broadway by Ben Vereen — who manipulates the story.
“I’d never seen anything like it, and I loved that” character, Randolph-Wright said. “After that, I thought, ‘I have to do this.’ ” He graduated with a double major in theater and religion, and embarked on a show business career.
The playwright was brought to Smith’s attention about the time she took over at Arena, more than a decade ago, by the Pulitzer-winning dramatist Paula Vogel. Soon after, Smith would present his play “Blue,” featuring Phylicia Rashad (his once-upon-a-time fellow ensemble member in “Dreamgirls,” then going by the surname Ayers-Allen.)
As one of Arena’s resident playwrights, a program that for a set number of years gives dramatists annual stipends, health care coverage and some development money, Randolph-Wright mulled over which project he wanted to work on. He settled on “Love in Afghanistan,” which evolved from an article he read about a custom in some Afghan families in which there is no male child. The tradition, known in Dari as “bacha pash,” calls for a daughter to be disguised and to live as a boy until puberty.
“In Afghan families, if you don’t have a boy you don’t have honor,” Randolph-Wright said. The concept fascinated him, and led him to compose a play about an Afghan woman who had been bacha pash — literally meaning “dressed as a boy” — and who after becoming a translator falls in love with an American, a hip-hop artist from a black middle-class family who grapples with his questions about personal values and identity.
Inevitably, he needed the feedback of people who knew Afghanistan, and as it happens, his old friend Landrigan, now living in Boston, had arrived in that country in 2004 and spent six years there, in various sorts of jobs. While he was in Kabul, he assisted in putting on a local production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” an experience that led to his co-authorship of a book, “Shakespeare in Kabul.”
“He was always interested in learning more and knowing more,” Landrigan said of Randolph-Wright, who gave him an early version of the piece and then, draft after draft of it. “I know he’s gifted but my concern was that he would write a superficial play, full of the melodrama that the situation would allow. The first draft veered in that direction.”
Subsequent drafts grew far subtler, in part because Landrigan introduced the dramatist to an Afghan woman, studying in the United States as part of a project called the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women , who had been bacha pash.
Melis Aker, the young Turkish actress and recent Tufts graduate cast as the interpreter, Roya, was dispatched by Arena to meet another Afghan woman in the IEAW program who also was at one time bacha pash. “I’ve been a tomboy but I’ve never lived as a tomboy,” Aker said, adding that she was able to ask the student “a lot of questions” about the custom. She, like Randolph-Wright, has never been to Kabul.
Randolph-Wright is eager to see how his play is received in a city that has ample reason to think about its significance. Even Napolitano’s early consult bolstered his sense of anticipation. “In her note, she writes to me, ‘This sure beats reading briefs,’ ” he said with a laugh. He takes all the encouragement he’s gotten as a sign that dreaming big reaps benefits that are big.
“It sort of validates being fearless,” he said.
“Love in Afghanistan,” by Charles Randolph-Wright. Directed by Lucie Tiberghien. Oct. 11-Nov. 17 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.