Afghanistan history dramatized for the Pentagon

The World

By Laura Lynch

“The Great Game” is a seven-hour series of short plays recounting the history of foreign involvement in Afghanistan. It was first staged in London in 2009. But now it’s getting an unusual showing in Washington.

The actors are flying there in February for a special Pentagon performance.

Nicholas Kent, the director of the London’s Tricycle theatre, commissioned the 12 plays from 12 writers. He said there is drama, but there’s no political agenda.

“It’s saying there’s a debate, take part in the debate,” Kent said, “and that’s its message. Make up your own mind. Get informed by seeing these plays and get more informed by reading and trying to understand and talking to people.”

Mohammad Qayoumi, an Afghan American who is president of California State University at East Bay near San Francisco, got the message when the play was staged in Berkeley last year.

“It’s not only looking at the issue from the lives of the Afghans, who have taken the brunt of the suffering for the last three decades,” he said, “but it is also humanizes the soldier, whether a Soviet soldier in Afghanistan, a NATO force, or whatever.”

It seems others got the message too.

US Brigadier General John Nicholson saw “The Great Game” in September, and raved about it to his Pentagon colleagues.

By October, Nicholas Kent was on his way to the Pentagon, invited to an early morning meeting to discuss staging the play there.

Kent went through extensive security checks, and then was escorted to a sub-basement room where officials hoped he could stage the play. Kent said that didn’t pan out.

“The logistics were impossible,” he said. “It took me 20 minutes to get in, and to bring in a number of actors, one of whom was born in Baghdad, would have taken longer.”

They would also need to bring in guns and explosives used on stage, and it would have been very difficult to get the scenery down to the sub-basement.

Instead, “The Great Game” will be staged at a Washington theatre. Pentagon brass, Afghan war veterans, and even some of President Obama’s advisors on Afghanistan are on the list to attend.

Mohammad Qayoumi said he thinks the military could learn a lot. “I hope the play can trigger more dialogue and a deeper understanding of the issues,” he said, though he added that the play alone can’t do it all.

“The Great Game” details American involvement to the present day. Nicholas Kent knows that parts of the show may be uncomfortable for some to watch, so he praises the Pentagon’s efforts to be open-minded, and he hopes it can accomplish what military analysis and history books cannot.

“In the theatre, you are forced to sit with a number of other people, share the same emotions,” he said, “and spend some hours seeing each part, and thinking about the problems — laughing, crying, getting angry, sympathizing, but above all putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. And I think that is the most important thing.”

Kent already has one review that suggests his efforts have paid off. A British general said he wished he’d seen the play before he went to Afghanistan in 2005.

He said it would have made him a much better commander.

PRI’s “The World” is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. “The World” is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.

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