Seven actors took to the stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Terrace Theater Monday for a 50-minute reading of the student-written “Pandemopium,” Georgetown’s entry to the 14th annual Page-to-Stage Festival.
The play, written by Connor Rohan (COL ’16), centers on the daily life of an Afghan poppy farmer, Ashraf, played by Adly Alec Abdel-Meguid (COL ’17), in rural Kandahar, Afghanistan. Ashraf holds a duel loyalty to his family’s safety and his livelihood, which depends on the Taliban-controlled opium market.
The yearly festival aims to support more than 40 theater companies in the D.C. area through public readings and rehearsals of their new works. “Pandemopium” opened to a crowd of Georgetown alumni, students and faculty, as well as Kennedy Center regulars. Rohan’s work won the Donn B. Murphy One-Acts Festival prize last year. Director of Theater and Performance Studies Maya Roth, who directed the staging, worked to bring the play to the Kennedy Center stage.
“Georgetown always liked to feature students or alumni works [at Page-to-Stage], and I talked to a faculty professor who suggested Connor’s work as exceptional,” Roth said. “It’s unsettling and taut and humane and unexpected, which hooked us.”
Rohan conceptualized and penned the play in the spring while taking the “Hope Playwriting Seminar,” taught by theater professor Christine Evans. The subject matter and title of the play, though, originated from a paper he wrote in a government course.
“My interest in Afghan opium started as purely academic,” Rohan said in a question–and–answer session after the performance, eliciting chuckles from the audience. “I had the opportunity to write a paper in my “Comparative Political Systems” class and discovered how pervasive [opium] was in Afghan culture.“
As a longtime member of the Georgetown University Improv Association and the Georgetown Heckler, Rohan originally set out to write a comedy. However, because of the gravity of his subject, Rohan quickly realized that his piece required less levity if he wanted to authentically tackle the issue.
“I said that I was going to write a comedy, and I soon found that just because of the subject matter that could not be,” Rohan, who also serves as vice president of the Georgetown University Student Association, said. “Ninety percent of the world’s opium comes from Afghanistan, and 70 percent of the Taliban’s funding comes from Afghan opium. … It is easier and was easier to get opium than food.”
Instead, Rohan sprinkled moments of comedy into a tense and intentionally complex landscape of relationships between Ashraf’s family, business and nationality.
“A lot of the issue in foreign policy related to Afghanistan is oversimplification,” Rohan said. “However, these are very complex societies with complex, deeply rooted issues of identity and association. There are a lot of real people. There is no real good or pure evil.”
Roth also acknowledged that the Page-to-Stage reading allowed an open exploration of Rohan’s text that may not have been possible in full production — namely, without an entirely Afghan cast.
“I felt that we had this freedom to share this play that would be hard for Georgetown as a campus to pull off, and even for maybe a professional theater in D.C. to pull off,” Roth said. “But Georgetown was also a gift in [that] I [cast] people who can engage the subject in the play … who have some understanding of, some interest in some of the range of issues in the text.”
Instead of looking to cast actors of Afghan backgrounds, Roth pulled seven talented students and alumni with varying experiences in Middle Eastern studies; all actors came from Georgetown, with the exception of Jesse Robinson, a senior at Rohan’s previous school, George Mason University. Roth pointed to Asif Majid (GRD ’15), who played Ashraf’s brother-in-law Said and recently graduated with his masters in conflict resolution at Georgetown. Additionally, Roth looked to cast students who spoke Arabic, which aided in the final reading.
“My initial hope was to do dialect work so that we could do justice to the text in a reading,” Roth said. “Ultimately, due to time constraints, it was important to work more on the acting.” Sarah Kelly Konig (COL ’16), who served as the play’s stage manager, added a soundtrack of gunfire throughout the reading, as well as picture cards depicting poppy fields, helicopters and Afghan children to mitigate time and staging constraints. Anna Arena (COL ’17), who attended Monday’s reading, said she was convinced of the text’s realistic portrayal of the conflict, despite limits on rehearsal time and staging.
“I thought that was realistic and addressed the conflict well,” Arena said. “I think … realizing that these people have been living in this state of perpetual insecurity for so long and that within that, life does go on somehow and there are elements of humor in daily life.”
Roth hoped that the audience would grapple with the insecurity not only in the text, but also apply the play to present-day conflicts as well.
“The larger question about what is going to happen in Afghanistan and in the region,” Roth said. “I think it’s important that the play is unsettling at its end, so people start thinking, ‘Maybe I should know more, or that this is more complicated than I think it is.“
While the staged reading was the first time Rohan had heard and seen his play in full, Roth said she hopes it will not be the last time.
“Our hope is that there are a couple of theaters who could actually cast this, and so we’ll share it and hope that it finds a place in the world,“ Roth said.