Worlds Collide in Keith Anwar’s Kabulitis

by Darren Callahan

Keith Anwar’s Kabulitis had a long and exciting trip to the stage, one guided by the steady hands of director Lavina Jadhwani, who is also Artistic Director of Rasaka Theatre Company and Richard Engling, Artistic Director of Polarity Ensemble Theatre, who also served as the show’s script dramaturg. The script had been in development with Polarity since being selected for the 2010 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays, in which it took top honors. Working together, the two companies have brought the script to a unique and original full production for the Chicago stage.

In an interview from her Chicago home, Ms. Jadhwani spoke of the play’s challenges and her tactics for delivering.

Lavina Jadhwani

Director Lavina Jadhwani charts the course.

“For me, the play is about the character of Mildred and her family’s struggle to figure out how best to support her, while simultaneously try to determine what sort of connection they want to maintain with their past in Kabul, especially in the wake of 9/11.”

Mildred, suffering from late-life dementia, struggles with the good-hearted, but off-target suggestions of her son, who lobbies his mother to move from her home into a full-time care facility. Mildred refuses to go. Confused by the identities of her granddaughter and an Afghani girl taken from her decades earlier, and haunted by ghosts in her basement, she is constantly reminded of her past. Decades before, she lived in Afghanistan as the Western wife of a progressive Afghani husband. With these waves of regret and the instability of the present, the play is a maze of Mildred’s shifting psyche.

“It’s interesting that the play is called Kabulitis,” says Jadhwani, “because the central storyline is very much about Mildred and her son, negotiating their relationship in the wake of her diagnosis.” As a result, we see the flashbacks to her time in Afghanistan (and particular the portrayal of the Mullah and the villain Da’ud) through the lens of her memory. The design team and the director worked together closely to create a world that would be most accurate to the character’s memory and experiences.

Jadhwani was attracted to the character-driven focus of Keith Anwar’s semi-autobiographical story. Though the material is bound to be considered “educational” – meant in the best sense, in that it reveals the deeper struggles of mid-century Afghanistan, a tense time for sexual equality and progressive politics, and puts what we know into sharp relief with Afghanistan today. However, despite the history lesson, the play uncovers the universal connection in the micro-struggles of a family. “I find that a lot of the humanity in the play comes from the humor and finding the moments to laugh in the face of adversity,” continues the director. “So we are leaning in to that, whenever possible.”

Playwright Keith Anwar passed away shortly after completing the final draft of Kabulitis. Therefore, Richard Engling has served as the script’s dramaturg. “He has been a great resource for any questions I’ve had,” Jadhwani says. “On a few occasions, this has resulted in small rewrites, but for the most part the script remains as Keith wrote it.”

Kabulitis is produced by Polarity in association with Rasaka with a multi-ethnic cast and a global story. When asked about the difficulties of directing this kind of collaboration, Jadhwani replies, “There’s a wealth of dramaturgical material to explore, the actors are working with elaborate back stories and navigating difficult dialects, and the design team has the challenge of creating an environment that can span half of the globe and over 60 years.”

Polarity Artistic Director Richard Engling comments on the collaboration: “We wanted the very best possible production for Keith’s play. Working with Rasaka and bringing in Lavina to direct seemed to me a natural choice for digging deeper into the cultural aspects of the script. Whenever we do a new script, our goal is to make it the definitive production. We want to bring out the playwright’s vision to the greatest degree possible.”

At the end of the day, Jadhwani’s approach to the work goes beyond the cultural to the specifically human. She focuses on creating clear relationships between characters, compelling moment-to-moment work in the individual scenes. This work included establishing clear “rules” of the world (especially in a play the features so many flashbacks and memories), and building a strong arc for the piece.

When asked about the enormous challenges of casting – for multi-cultural, to a wide range of ages – Jadhwani admits the process took over a month to complete. In the end, though, she achieved standout performances by all. “I am extremely proud of our cast, their talent, and their level of professionalism, so I consider that time well spent!”

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