…Rules needn’t be understood/Follow the path as you should…
Bacha bazi, an ancient Middle Eastern tradition in which men purchase young boys for entertainment and sexual purposes, is illegal (against both sharia law and the civil code), but largely ignored by authorities. The public part of this practice often manifests as boys taught to dance for the pleasure and seduction of so-called owners and their friends. In this play, a righteous Afghan explains that men have needs which by law cannot be met by a woman other than a wife. “Dancing boys allow us to keep our sacred relationships.” Without them, he declares, moral order would topple.
Inspired by Frontline’s 2011 documentary The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, the musical’s authors, Charlie Sohne and Tim Rosser, parallel a stirring love story between two emotionally different Bacha bazi boys with the social and political behavior of equally dissimilar masters. We’re given four points of view representative of a torn country. No mean feat.
An unobtrusive storyteller, the “Unknown Man” (Deven Kolluri) with a later named role, looks back at this tale. Behind a scrim, shadows describe Jahandar’s (Jonathan Raviv) purchase of Paiman (Troy Iwata). The innocent child is informed of his future and taught to dance. (Well conceived.) … Night by night in the master’s embrace/the boy learns his place… Jahandar is kind. His boy will not be sold to others. A curtain opens.
Paiman becomes a popular artist. Jahandar is proud and affectionate. Years pass. One day, he touches the boy’s cheek and whips his hand away. Peach fuzz. When a man is capable of making decisions for himself, he must stop ‘dancing,’ banished from the only life he’s known. “You don’t want me anymore?!” To keep a boy is natural, to keep a man is wrong. The master will, if regretfully, find his charge a wife. Paiman never questions the way things must be.…. I’ll dance away the fear…
Jahandar’s cousin Zemar (Osh Ghanimah) purchases his dancer, Feda, at a discount. (Nikhil Saboo) He’s a provocative performer …I could be your dream/I could be your idol/ I could be the words you never speak… but old for the art. Unlike Paiman, Feda has dreams of escaping to the city. At first, he mocks his tender peer. Through a haunting song, however, the two inadvertently grow close…I never feel lonely with him around me…(His love? His God?) Feda chips away at Paiman’s singular docility.
Meanwhile, Jahandar plans sabotage, potentially exposing a political/industrial lie to Americans aiding the country. Afghanistan for the Afghans he demands in the name of self rule, like every colonially bound citizen before him. Freedom. Progress. Jahandar is an articulate, forward thinking businessman with nationalist plans. He tries to enlist the crass, joke-telling Zemar (imagine the Catskills), but is strongly advised to let things be. Then they make a bet.
Troy Iwata, Jonathan Raviv
Most of Tim Rosser’s songs are meandering, tuneless. There are 4-5 in the show with accessible, appealing melodies out of 17. Because these are well crafted, the others feel diminished. Lyrics tend to be less specific and evocative without some structure. Well researched, and insightful phrases pepper even less successful efforts.
Charlie Sohne’s Book, however, is deft, illuminating, strong, and in the end carries one past musical weakness. Characters are credible and heady. With Jahandar, the writer manages to create a good man in context, found reprehensible outside it. Despite yearning for freedom, Paiman and Feda sing …when I have a boy of my own…never considering foregoing the ritual. Relationships evolve. Betrayal is accepted. The play ends cleverly, imbued with theatrical hope, but tempered by truth. Custom, brutality, morality, free will, and love all play parts.
Nihil Saboo, Troy Iwata
Jonathan Raviv makes a riveting Jahandar. Dignity, rectitude, and devotion contrast casual cruelty with a visceral jolt. The Afghan chooses incomprehensible tradition over entropy. Raviv is intense and masculine with focus that makes things appear to be happening in real time. Warmth, tension and wretched pain are empathetic.
Troy Iwata (Paiman) and Nikhil Saboo (Feda) are well cast opposite each other. Iwata inhabits naïveté as if he came to the theater with it. He exudes fragility and instills Paiman with a tenuous quality affecting every scene. Trust comes no sooner than time dictates. Courage is strikingly credible. His physique is soft.
Nikhil Saboo’s expansive portrayal of Feda makes the cocky rebel as persuasive to us as he is to Paiman. When the façade cracks, we too are surprised. (When he reverts, we wonder at forgiveness.) Exuberant dancing simulates flight. The actor’s song enchants. His physique is ripped.
I found Osh Ghanimah’s New York accent off putting but believed Zemar’s irresponsible, cold-blooded nature. Deven Kolluri effectively projects gravitas, coming into his own at the end.
Tony Speciale’s direction and Nejla Yatkin’s integrated choreography are inspired. Simply to have Paiman walk around a wall while Feda jumps down from it is telling. Both Iwata and Saboo move like dancers throughout. Actual performances utilize each actor’s strengths and reflect the namesake’s character. Diaphanous fabric is made poetic.
Desire and affection are portrayed with tact and delicacy. Feda showing Paiman what to expect at his wedding ceremony will take your breath away. Paiman’s attempted dance with a debilitating wound is poignant. Manhandling is palpable. Despite the single set, we know where we are.
Scenic Design by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader is minimal and effective. Draped fabric and intermittent colored lights extend over audience heads, while dirt and garbage butt the theater floor and stage adding atmosphere. Lighting Design surreptitiously affects mood and attention. (Wen-Ling-Liao) Justin Graziani does magical things with Sound Design.
Violence – in particular a wrestling scene – is startlingly real. Kudos to Fight Director Dan Renkin.
A group of musicians playing for a dancing boy (Library of Congress)
Production Photos by Maria Baranova
Opening: Troy Iwata, Jonathan Raviv
Abingdon Theatre Company presents
The Boy Who Danced On Air
Music -Tim Rosser
Book & Lyrics – Charlie Sohne
Directed by Tony Speciale
Music Direction – David Gardos
June Havoc Theatre
312 West 36th Street
Through June 11, 2017