The show opens quietly. Tiptoe quietly. Shared scrutiny between the audience and Taroon (Yousof Sultani) accompanies the simplest of actions as he crosses his sister’s apartment to get milk and to check his email. The audience is in the dark, and the living room is in the light. For now, the lights in the neighboring apartments are off — as long as Taroon is careful. At last, a sound that catches the breath: Somewhere offstage, a baby cries. Thus begins the Pulitzer Prize–nominated “Selling Kabul” by playwright Sylvia Khoury, directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Maybe a baby isn’t the first sound you’d expect to hear in a play set in 2013 Afghanistan. It’s okay — confront that bias for a moment, then keep moving. “Selling Kabul” builds on audience assumptions, and not only those about war, in order to share a story that is challenging, refreshing and, at times, breathlessly quiet. That cry in the distance becomes a cornerstone in a play that punishes noise with intense fear that follows every speaker for a tense, rapidly-evolving single act.
“Selling Kabul” premiered to the world in 2019 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, was staged in New York in 2021, and now is produced in Seattle. For a play written about events taking place in 2013, “Selling Kabul” is still an incredibly relevant play. In the light of multiple continuing international conflicts, including the 2021 Taliban takeover of Kabul, gazing into the neatly decorated home of Afiya (Susaan Jamshidi) and Jawid (Barzin Akhavan) reveals what is, to most American audiences, a rare mirror to contemporary events. After working as a translator for American forces, Taroon struggles to hide from the Taliban forces and claim a visa to the U.S. The multiple fraught and rushed discussions about secret escapes from the country and the ever-growing threat of being discovered and found by the Taliban are still realistic nearly a decade later.
When a play follows a character who is trapped, what is on the outside becomes furiously fascinating to not just the characters but also the audience. The sound design of “Selling Kabul” by D.R. Amromin hits the spot. From the baby’s cry to an almost haptic crescendo of noise leading up to an unexpected visit, sound is integral to hiding Taroon and describing all he cannot see outside of Afiya’s home. At first, the ambient noise of electric fans is barely a balm to a dire situation, but when the fans are shut off and the audience is left to hold the silence with the characters, that quiet hush is greatly missed.
In addition, the set — designed by Lex Marcos — invites the audience into a warm but enclosed home. Windows are covered all day and doors are closed quietly to ward off the possibility of eyes on them from everywhere, from the unseen residents of apartments just feet away and certainly through the fourth wall. The cut-out appearance of the box set puts the audience in the role of the watching neighbor and leaves open the question of what to do when you know your neighbor’s in trouble. The home is styled geometrically and symmetrically in a culturally informed way that also offers characters a chance to sit across from each other and be scrutinized for their truths. In turn and in pairs, Afiya and Taroon sit across from each other, then Afiya and Leyla, and at last, a third pairing faces each other as two people who would risk anything for the sake of their children.
Parenthood is one of the most pressing and prevalent themes throughout “Selling Kabul.” Neighbor Leyla (Fatima Wardak), exhilarated and overjoyed as a new parent, provides a stark contrast to Afiya, whose attempts to become a mother have thus far been unsuccessful. Taroon, whose presence is kept secret from Leyla, grows increasingly more restless upon his son’s birth, since as a wanted man he is unable to attend to his wife and son. Yet in the shadows of war and the Taliban, three inextinguishable lights of hope exist for children present and future.
Every character in “Selling Kabul” wears multiple faces, and each independently debates the question of honor and selfish heroism versus survival and perceived cowardice. Some of these faces are shattered early on, as Taroon nearly strides out the door to certain death to meet his newborn son. Other faces last nearly the whole play; a tearful Jawid holds one of the most emotional moments of the performance, demonstrating and explaining how much he has sacrificed for the safety of the woman he loves. Akhavan’s performance throughout is a stunning highlight of the show.
There were some portions of “Selling Kabul” that didn’t necessarily sell, however. The lights in neighbors’ windows were assumed at first to be a sort of suspicion indicator, but lights turned on and off inconsistently without a specific meaning or time. And while, as Taroon, Sultani created a compelling demonstration of desperation and confusion, his chemistry with the rest of the cast lacked in comparison to what the others built between them.
“Selling Kabul” challenges theatrical form and confronts another bias of the theater-goer by never revealing certain lies by the time the show ends. However, Taroon’s journey has only just begun. Why divulge everything if there are thousands of miles, years of uncertainty and generations of aftermath left to go? Why value the audience’s closure over the character’s mental health? Timelines can flip back and forth and come crashing down in single-second split decisions. It is rare that a major secret is hidden from a main character with no resolution but, instead of feeling like a frustrating anticlimax, the need to keep Taroon safe is understood. The audience buys into the decision to protect him from heartbreak for just a little longer, just a little longer…
Seattle Rep’s production of “Selling Kabul” depends on the collective conscience of the audience to present a show that is somatic in design, crushingly relevant in content and breathtaking in performance. The overwhelmingly liberal Seattle audience is brought face-to-face with the reality of the sacrifices involved in attempting to immigrate. Taroon’s frequent unsuccessful attempts to connect to the Internet to check his immigration status, all while placing faith in an American soldier whose promises of help seem threadbare from the outside, mirror the disconnect audiences have with actual immigrants, romanticizing specific stories that are in few ways like “Selling Kabul.” At a certain point — early on — the shame of ignorance runs dry, and from there grows a need for substantial action and support. Flyers for various aid organizations are cleverly offered by the Rep on a table outside the theater.
Throughout the play, Taroon bares all, yet the lie that hurts the most is a simple one. He’s been putting the whole family at risk with his actions. “Every day,” he tells his sister, “I watch the television.” The deeper truth is that Afiya and Jawid knew — and took that risk with him.
W. Barnett Marcus is an actor and playwright living in Seattle who can be found on Twitter @WBarnettMarcus.
“Selling Kabul” runs through May 22 at the Seattle Repertory Theater. Tickets range from $44 to $76, with digital access
available for $45. Runtime is 1 hour 40 minutes without an intermission.
Read more of the May 11-17, 2022 issue.