The Boy Who Danced On Air: An Afghan Tale of Love and Abuse
In terms of topics and stories that are used as base material for a musical, The Boy Who Danced On Air will rank up there along side Kid Victory as one of the most utterly disturbing but unique ones utilized. With a book and lyrics by Charlie Sohne, and music by Tim Rosser, this creation certainly soars through the air, while also stumbling at moments in its sincere treatment. In some ways, a musical based on the upsetting Afghan tradition of bachabaze makes a certain amount of sense, maybe more so than the abduction story told by Kander and Pierce (click here for my review). The show, inspired by a 2010 documentary titled, “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan” revolves around the practice of young boys bought by wealthy married men to be trained as dancers for the entertainment of their social circle of men. Tradition and religion in Afghanistan forbid women to dance in public, but boys can be made to dance in women’s clothing for the wealthy. That practice is seen by some as acceptable (although not legal). So a musical about dancing boys feels at least musically connected and their powerlessness combined with their isolation and pride in their dance (choreography by Nejla Yatkin) is sufficiently inspirational for those songs about internal struggle. The problem, or at least the most glaring and disturbing part is that the boys, sold by their poor families are often sexually and physically abused by their owners and sold for sex to those same powerful men who viewed their dancing. That component may tip the scale a bit too far for some.
I’m not one who believes that a topic, even one as disturbing as this, is unusable as source material. Theatre is a place where uncomfortable stories should be told, even stories that are outside of the norm. I mean, there is a 9/11 musical right now, Come From Away, that is inspirational and magnificent, much to everyone’s surprise. Many shows, including the previously mentioned, Kid Victory and the macabre Sweeney Todd tackle very taboo subjects using song to explore the inner thoughts and emotionality of characters both sympathetic and not. This is definitely the case of these boys, sold as young as 10 years old, they are basically slaves used for entertainment and sex, who are abused at the whim of their owners for money and prestige. There is one beautiful song after another about that inner pain and confusion, just the kind of thing musicals do so well at. After years of abuse, they are then discarded into the world penniless once the boy starts to show signs of becoming a man. A truly upsetting and horrific practice that even the police in Afghanistan deny exists, but as seen in numerous investigative news stories, this ancient tradition prevails to this day.
In The Boy Who Danced on Air, the beautiful young boy, Paiman, played with a great deal of heart and wide eyed innocence by Troy Iwata, is sold to Jahandar at the age of ten years old. Jahandar, played with care and sensuality by the very appealing Jonathan Raviv, is a married older man who explains that Paiman’s father “didn’t want you as much as I do.” The opening song, ‘A Song He Never Chose“, sung by the mysterious unknown man (Deven Kolluri) chronicles this transaction and the six years after with the creative use of puppet-like silhouettes and distortions of the actor’s size projected on to a backdrop. This theatrical use of shadows somehow has the ability to reduce the awfulness of the pedophilia and slavery of a ten year old. It’s a wise use of shadow and light courtesy of the creative design team (sets by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader; costumes by Andrea Lauer; lighting by Wen-Ling Liao; sound by Justin Graziani) that help keep us engaged but not horrified to the point of tuning out. It’s a delicate balance that they generally achieve, although some moments of sexuality and abuse are overly romanticized, minimized, or completely whitewashed to make it palpable to our senses.
The special bond that grows between this particular master and his boy help keep the disturbing scenarios from completely engulfing us, as it layers the ideas of tradition up against humanity and love, placing the two in a complicated coupling that will only cause trouble in the end. This special bond between Jahandar and Paiman is certainly fascinating and textured but the true heart of this sad story is when the confused and scared Paiman meets another boy dancer, the seemingly brave and daring Feda. Beautifully played by the glorious voiced Nikhil Saboo, there is no surprise that the two boys, on the road to becoming men, will find comfort in each other. There interactions are ripe with conflict, fear, shame, and, most importantly, desire, love, and connectiveness. They find hope and an idea of future in each other’s eyes and songs.
Jahandar’s good friend, Zemar, played with a cunning mix of humor and dread by the talented Osh Ghanimah only heightens our anxiety about how things are going to go terribly wrong between them all. Love between any of these men is completely forbidden, and somewhere in this complicated love triangle, Zemar, although filled with jokes and good humor, is the dreaded ingredient. Also as simply and neatly directed by Tony Speciale, Zemar, who is the owner of Feda, is the character that feels the most untrustworthy and dangerous of the lot; someone I would certainly not put any faith in.
It’s quite an amazing casting score that this production found all of these wonderfully voiced men, who fit the character’s descriptions so perfectly. Saboo and Iwata share the beauty and boyishness of young sixteen year olds on the pathway to manhood. And their balance of fear, bravado, and bravery couldn’t have been better grounded. The only one of the five that lacks presence and power is Kolluri as the Unknown Man, barely registering as a presence until the final few moments. Maybe that was the intended use of the character at the beginning, but a stronger vocal performance would have been welcomed, as the music is truly beautiful and exciting (music director, David Gardos; orchestrations by Mr. Rosser).
As disturbing and complicated as this story already is, with its tight rope walk regarding the abuse of young boys by powerful men, the creators threw in another plot line concerning an empty shell of a power plant and unwanted American involvement. It’s a shame Rosser and Sohne didn’t have enough faith in the compelling story of the forbidden love between the two dancing boys and their brave attempt to escape the century old tradition of abuse and control at the hands of their masters. It is smart and fascinating to add the perplexing layer of the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ style love and jealousy between master Jahandar and slave Paiman, but the unneeded use of the politics and the Unknown Man add little to the heart-breaking story that already has been crafted with such care. At the core, we are hooked by the two beautiful boys dreaming of a life outside of this dungeon they find themselves in. We dream of a world where these two will soar, and dance into the air with love and abandonment.