Roya (Melis Aker) and Duke (Khris Davis), the main characters in Arena Stage’s “Love in Afghanistan,” are staging elaborate cover-ups.
Roya, an interpreter for the Americans at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, has spent most of her life disguised as a boy. Duke, a hip-hop star on base to entertain the troops, is hiding a past that was more gated community than ’hood. Both had to build their public images from the ground up — an experience mirrored by the actors playing them.
“Love in Afghanistan,” written by Charles Randolph-Wright, one of Arena’s resident playwrights, is a world premiere, which gave the actors a unique role in shaping their characters.
“You usually come in the beginning with everything already set,” Davis says. In this case, the next actor to play Duke “will get a fully developed script and a fully developed character, and I’ll be able to say, ‘I remember when I did that in rehearsal and we kept it.’ The Duke that I created will forever be onstage.”
“It’s a conversation and a collaboration with the entire group to discuss the arc of each character,” Aker says. “The script is constantly in flux, so you have a say.”
Roya, her character, wants a say, too. For her, this necessitates disguising herself as a man as she works for women’s rights. When she was a child, she followed an Afghan tradition where a daughter in a family without sons dresses as a boy until puberty, and she maintains the facade as an adult, for safety. It’s only at the airfield and at home that she drops the disguise.
For Duke, concealing his background is an issue of class and success. “He is struggling with being a poser his entire life,” Davis says. “His mother works for the World Bank and his father was a lawyer. And the rap DNA you had to have was, you gotta struggle, you gotta be from the ’hood, you gotta sell drugs, you gotta have gone to jail, you had to have pit bulls and guns at your house to have credibility.”
As Roya and Duke reveal themselves to each other, a romance develops.
“Each of the characters shed layers of themselves and find similar reasons why they have to put up those layers to begin with,” Aker says. “It’s a conversation that happens throughout the play” — much like the real-world conversations that created Roya and Duke from the start.
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW; Fri. through Nov. 17, $40-$105; 202-488-3300. (Waterfront)