An Interview with Gabriel Jason Dean and Humaira Ghilzai
On January 17, The VORTEX in Austin TX opened Heartland as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. VORTEX Managing Director Melissa Vogt sat down with playwright Gabriel Jason Dean and Afghanistan Cultural Consultant Humaira Ghilzai over Skype to discuss the inspiration for the play and the what it’s like to include a cultural consultant in the process of creating a new work.
Melissa Vogt: Thank you for making time today to have this conversation, Gabriel. To start things off, I’d love to hear about what inspired you to write about Afghanistan and the US involvement in the textbook propaganda.
Gabriel Jason Dean: My wife Jessie, she's the oldest of five, so I have four younger siblings by marriage, one of whom, Nolan, was dating a young woman in high school whose father was a civilian contractor. He built schools in war-torn countries and places where education wasn't a governmental priority. In 2006, he was building schools in Afghanistan.
He would always bring his family in the summers wherever he was building. He brought Nolan's girlfriend, her sister, and her mother to Afghanistan in summer of 2006 and their helicopter crashed north of Khandahar. The Taliban claimed responsibility. The father lost his whole family and my brother-in-law lost his girlfriend. And all the sudden, the US conflict with Afghanistan was felt very personally in our family.
I was one of the first people Nolan saw after he found out about it. I didn't know what to say to him. I mean, I felt so stupid. I knew that the United States had sent troops into Afghanistan as a counter to 9/11. But that’s all I knew. So my ignorance in that crucial moment motivated me to learn as much as I possibly could. I started reading as much as I could, hoping that I’d have something to say to Nolan that could bring him some peace. All these years later, and a huge amount of research to the point of obsession and I still don’t know what to say to my brother-in-law about that tragic moment in his early life. It turned out that the helicopter was not taken down by the Taliban, but actually crashed because of poor maintenance. When I started reading about the US conflict in Afghanistan, I had no intention ever of writing plays about it. Flash forward four years later and I’m in grad school at UT for playwriting.
I started the play In Bloom, formerly titled Bacha Bazi (Boy Play), which was part of the UTNT festival here in Austin in 2012. It was about American intervention into Afghanistan told through the relationship of a documentary filmmaker and a young queer man in Afghanistan. While doing research on that play I came across an article in the L.A. Times about the US created pro-Jihad textbooks. It felt much more insidious to me than Charlie Wilson's War and the weapons deals. Even though I have strong opinions about those things, I can at least wrap my mind around why they happened politically. But brainwashing children, I still can't wrap my mind around it. I feel very much like the character of Getee in the play when she discovers the books for herself in Afghanistan.
I filed the article away and said, "Maybe I'll write a play about this. Maybe I'm not the person to write a play about this. Maybe I'll share it with somebody else who is better to do it." But then, in 2014, I pitched it to InterAct Theater in Philadelphia for a 20/20 commission and they took the commission, so I had to write it. And then it just went from there.
Melissa Vogt: How did you meet Humaira, and when did she come onto the project?
Gabriel Jason Dean: I met Humaira through our mutual friend Lucie Tiberghien, who's a director I work with and a director that Humaira has worked with in the past out on the West Coast. I was working with Lucie on In Bloom and she said, "You absolutely need to talk to Humaira. She's an incredible dramaturg and cultural consultant.” Humaira was exactly the person I was looking for. I do my research to the point of exhaustion, but I certainly have blinders and honestly, there is only so much research one can do. Having a collaborator, or many if that’s possible, who has lived experience of the culture and of the place is extremely important when writing outside one’s own lived experience. So it was super important to me to find Humaira.
I had spoken to a number of Afghans prior to Humaira, but none of them were dramaturgs, they didn’t really understood story or theater. So this was a really great marriage. We worked on In Bloom together a bit. When I was lucky enough to get the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton, which is the best, most generous thing that has ever happened to my career, I had development money that I could use for my projects. With In Bloom, Humaira and I started working together after many drafts of the play. But having this development money at Princeton, I used it to hire Humaira to help early on for Heartland. She's been with the play since maybe draft two or three, I would say.
We had a lot of conversations on the phone and a lot of notes back and forth. My initial inquiry to Humaira was simply for transliteration and just making sure I was being culturally accurate and hoping to find ways to deepen the play. We talked a lot about story more than anything, which I’ve realized now is actually about authenticity.
Melissa Vogt: That's fascinating. There are many people outside of the theatre who probably don't understand a playwright’s process. The journey can be very long, especially when you're writing about stories, places, and cultures that are not necessarily native to you.
Humaira, can you give me some background on who you are, and what you do? Many aren't familiar with cultural consultants, or what that entails.
Humaira Ghilzai: Well, you commented that people don't know what playwrights do. They definitely don't know what a cultural consultant does! I recently interviewed with a director in Birmingham, England, and she said, "Oh, you know, we've never hired a cultural consultant." My response was, "Don't worry, every single person I talk to says this.”
I was born in Afghanistan but left when the Russians invaded in 1979. My family realized that we could no longer live there, mostly because of the work my father did as a diplomat prior to the invasion. To live in a communist country you have to pretty much buy into the dogma or you’re pegged as an enemy of the state.
My teenage siblings were pressured to join the communist party at their schools and encouraged to report on who came to our house, who left our house, who said what. They didn’t agree and were ostracised by teachers for their disobedience. It was clearly something that my parents were not going to tolerate. Also, my father was educated in the United States. He actually got his bachelor's and master’s at San Francisco State University so he was automatically dubbed as a CIA agent.
Over a two year period my family members made our way out of Afghanistan and to the United States, where we were accepted as political refugees. I spent the majority of my teenage years and 20s ignoring my Afghan heritage. I just wanted to be American and live the American Dream. It was really after 9/11 that I re-engaged with the country and my heritage. It was my father who said we should do something to help now that the country is open. I started my non-profit, Afghan Friends Network, and got re-engaged with the Afghan community. I had to basically learn all there is about Afghanistan and what had been happening there for 23 years.
The way I got into cultural consulting was in the first production of The Kite Runner, which was produced at San Jose Rep. The playwright, Matt Spangler, asked Khaled Hosseini, the author, for a recommendation. For some reason, he thought I would be good at this . I didn't know how a stage production worked or what it would be like to help others be an authentic Afghan, but I was more fluent in being Afghan than anyone else in the room.
Before the first rehearsal, I contacted a friend of mine who used to work for Berkeley Rep. "Tell me how this whole theater business works." I took him to breakfast and he explained everything. So, I went in the first rehearsal not looking too clueless. I used to work in tech, and I had a lot of consulting background. I used those skills to help me with my theatre consulting gigs. I assess the problem that the clients face and then find solutions. In theatre consulting or any consulting project for that matter, you don't give your opinion, you don't move your own agenda; you help the client fulfill their goals. I applied that mind set to my theater work which has made it easy for me to work with directors, costume, and set design because I approach every project in a collaborative way. I always keep in mind that they have a creative vision for the work, and my job is to bring cultural authenticity to their vision.
At first, it was just The Kite Runner, and then I realized there are other projects out there that need my expertise. After some research, I was lucky enough to connect with J.T. Rogers who was doing Blood and Gifts. I contacted him through Facebook. I'm like, "I'm an Afghan Cultural Consultant, do you need some help?" That's when I met Lucie, and then I went on to do a variety of different projects. Now I consult not only on Afghanistan related project but creative works that are set in the Muslim world
Working with Gabe was the first time where I came in at the ground level. And now, I'm very protective of the play. Or, I should say, Heartland has a soft spot in my heart . Also, the a story is very relevant to me both as an American and as an Afghan. I feel that it's a story people need to know. Yesterday, I spoke to a private women's club here in San Francisco about the plight of Afghan women. People are still so confused, so curious and so interested in Afghanistan. But it’s such a complicated subject and storytelling is the best way to break down the complexity of Afghanistan and bring a human face to it.
Melissa Vogt: What has it been like, working on Heartland? In what ways have you been involved in this process?
Humaira Ghilzai: As a cultural consultant on a production, my job is first to set a scene for the world we’re portraying, and then I go on to help the costume designer, set designer, music artists, and cast create that world accurately. There are things that I also create originally. For example, I recently worked with Seattle Rep. I wrote the 100 year history of Afghanistan, through Afghan women’s eyes for their “lobbyturgy" and I wrote an editorial for the Encore magazine for their show, A Thousand Splendid Suns.
With Heartland, Gabe asked me to read the play (that was three years ago) and give him feedback on it. From there we’ve collaborated on language, history, and Naz’s personal journey. With my encouragement, Gabe even changed one of the character’s nationality. We had a lot of fun. I'm very careful about not stunting people's creative process, and that was something I think that worked really well in my collaboration with Gabe, where I would come back to him with two or three solutions to a question so he could choose the path for where he wanted the story to go.
I feel like one area that I've helped with this play has been to help Gabe locate pages of the CIA propaganda book. I had contacts in the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, and I connected Gabe with them. They have digitized a lot of books, including these. Gabe started a conversation with the director of the Afghanistan Center and he was able to get some copies, or maybe I was.
Of course there was also the language, because there were times that Gabe wanted to say something in English, but it didn't translate well in Dari, so I had to massage it so it sounded more like something an Afghan would say. Then we would go back and forth until the dialogue was perfect. But the interesting thing was that we did everything by email and phone until maybe a year ago when we first did a Skype call and we met each other face-to-face.
There are a lot of Dari lines. I was concerned about how an American actor would be able to learn so much Dari. So, we went back and forth, and I always kept that in mind. For example, at the end [of Heartland] there is the prayer scene, and my recommendation was that we do a truncated prayer that is actually taught to a Muslim convert, rather than a prayer that a Muslim does every morning. I recommended the new convert prayer because it's a little bit shorter with a lot of repetition of the same words.
Another thing that I really enjoyed about working with Gabe was that he was very collaborative and he not only sought my input but really tried to understand more about the culture on his own. I would throw out ideas to him and he would think about it, we would discuss it and then it was up to him to decide if he wanted it in his play. I felt that he gave me permission to be really creative and open with him.
One of the fun things for me is that even during the process, once in a while I'd see him throw in a line that was a little bit of an inside cultural joke which showed to me that he really got Afghanistan and its people.
Melissa Vogt: Have you ever run into any roadblocks with your consulting work?
Humaira Ghilzai: I would say the biggest roadblock is that people don’t know what I do and that audiences today recognize and appreciate depth of language, culture, and writing in creative works. I feel a piece is as good as the point where it takes me to another world and keeps me there. There are times I’m watching a TV show or a movie that’s set in Afghanistan or Muslim country and I wince at some glaring mistakes and turn to my husband and say, “I can’t believe they didn’t fix this guy’s accent.” I think it goes back to what I said earlier. People don’t know what I do and they don’t know they need my services.
And then there are times that Afghans think I'm not Afghan enough. I came here when I was young, I’m married to an American, and I live an American life apart from the fact that all my work is focused on Afghanistan. I’ve been asked, "Who are you to be represent us accurately?
I was consulting on another play when I invited a group of Afghans to a pre-show viewing to get their feedback. There were a lot of grumblings about our choices mostly because they thought we shouldn’t air the dirty laundry of Afghan people. I understand, when your culture is not represented often on a big stage, that you want to show the best parts of it. However, that doesn’t always make for good storytelling. I've had people corner me and ask, "Why did you let this or that happen?" My job is not to censor anything. When there is tension, and discomfort, that is when you’ve got audiences and that doesn’t always translate into nice stories about good people. I also sometimes find when I speak about Afghanistan, or if I'm promoting my non-profit, Americans are more receptive to an Afghan woman who wears a headscarf and looks downtrodden than someone who looks, speaks, and dresses like me. I don’t fit their image of what an Afghan woman should be. I can't drum up as many donations or come across as a person who's a victim. It's an interesting dichotomy to be in.
Melissa Vogt: Thank you, Humaira. For both of you, is there anything you’d like to mention that we haven’t touched on yet?
Gabriel Jason Dean: I remember one of the goals of this play early on was that I wanted to write a good Afghan character; somebody who was good at heart, flawed in the way that we all are flawed, but decidedly not a terrorist. Someone who had a healthy relationship with Islam. Not someone who was a victim and felt completely downtrodden. So, the character of Nazrullah was born in a lot of ways in rebellion to a lot Muslim characters that I've seen portrayed in other plays. That was very important to me. And I thought, “Wait, am I doing this out of some white saviorism?” I worried about that. I worried Naz was too good at times. But now having thoroughly developed this play and this character and having seen the effect Nazrullah has on Muslim audience members at the productions at Geva and New Rep, I think I’ve done the right thing.
At Geva, they bussed in high school kids to come see it. I remember being there after one of the matinees and one of the students, a young boy came up and said, "Thank you. This is great. I've never seen that guy on stage." And he was talking about Naz, you know? Because every time he sees somebody who looks like him on stage, they're not playing a character like this. I was like, okay, mission accomplished. I'm good. My job here is done. I love the character of Nazrullah. I love him so much.
Humaira Ghilzai: Well, I do have to agree. Nearly every actor I've worked with is cast as a terrorist on TV shows or films. I really, really appreciate that Naz has a sense of humor and he’s not a terrorist.
I feel that as Americans, we don't realize what our footprint is in the world. This story is very important and needs to be told because a lot of times, because of how our government structure is and the changes of the government, and how we all have short memories, we don't realize the things we do today are going to catch up with us 10, 15, or 20 years later. I feel like it's important on so many levels that we understand the future repercussions of the political choices we make today.
Heartland was first produced as a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere by Geva Theatre Center, Rochester, NY, New Repertory Theatre, Watertown, MA, The VORTEX, Austin, TX, and InterAct Theatre Company, Center City, PA. It will be livestreamed from The VORTEX in Austin TX on Thursday, January 31st at 8pm CDT.
For more information on Humaira Ghilzai’s work as an Afhanistan Cultural Consultant, visit her website at www.humairaghilzai.com. To learn more about Afghan Friends Network, check out www.afghanfriends.net.
To follow playwright Gabriel Jason Dean, visit his website at www.gabrieljasondean.com.