In 2010, an Afghan journalist produced an hour-long documentary for PBS’ Frontline entitled The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan , about the illegal revival of an ancient tradition called Bacha Bazi (literally “boy play“), which involves wealthy men buying boys as young as 11 from their poor families, and training them in traditional dance, which they perform at all-male parties wearing women’s attire. The boys are often expected to gratify their masters sexually, and sometimes their masters’ friends as well.
That documentary “set us on a half-decade journey of researching and writing,” composer Tim Rosser and wordsmith Charlie Sohne write in a program note for “The Boy Who Danced on Air,” their musical that uses the complex and unsettling context of the Bacha Bazi to tell a love story between two 16-year-old boys.
The Abingdon Theatre Company’s production of this musical features some terrific solo dancing and stirring song duets by the two talented performers, making their Off-Broadway debuts, who portray the lovers. The design for the small stage of the Tony Kiser Theater offers much stunning visual appeal. Having seen the Frontline documentary, however, I was left with many questions, crucial among them: How accurate or illuminating is this show about the culture, and subculture, it professes to depict? And how much of the real story is sacrificed to hew to the conventions of American musical theater?
Sohne and Rosser do not omit the ugliness, although the musical presents it discreetly. We see Paiman (Troy Iwata) sold as a young boy to the middle aged Jahandar (Jonathan Raviv), the sale cleverly presented as a shadow play, with Paiman’s silhouette many times smaller than Jahander’s, to emphasize his extreme youth. In the first song of the show, “A Song He Never Chose,” a character named the Unknown Man (Deven Kolluri), who will serve periodically as troubador-narrator, lyrically narrates the story of Paiman’s adjustment to his sale and years of training, until Jahandar informs Paiman of his other duties: “Men have needs. That’s why we have dancing boys – boys who we train to dance but also to bring into our homes and tend to our desires. It’s what allows us to maintain moral relationships with women. It is a sacred role…”
The heart of “The Boy Who Danced on Air,” though, is the romance that is sparked between Paiman and Feda (Nikhil Saboo), a fellow dancer whom Paiman meets at one of the all-male dancing parties. Feda is owned by Jahandar’s cousin, Zemar (Osh Ghanimah).
Yes, we are meant to understand that the two young men find each other as a refuge from their miserable lives as exploited slaves. No permanent happiness awaits them; it ends in tragedy (albeit with an absurdly uplifting coda.) Yet Troy Iwata and Nikhil Saboo, graceful and attractive young performers who are frequently shirtless, engage in soaring duets and intimate embraces; the effect is to make “The Boy Who Danced on Air” feel more like a homoerotic romantic musical than the sort of sober drama represented by, say, Kander and Pierce’s recent “Kid Victory,” in which a pedophile abducts a teenager in Kansas. And that musical didn’t have the extra burden of trying to translate a distant foreign culture for an American audience. I wonder, for example, just how much actual research went into the creative team’s interpretation of Jahandar’s villainy; the musical suggests he is struggling with his genuine feelings for Paiman that his homophobic culture makes him unable to express.
Rosser and Sohne also include a subplot in which Jahander and Zemar work at an American power plant that deliberately doesn’t function; the Americans built it as a show pony for the press. Jahander schemes to expose the Americans’ ruse, and get the plant operational, providing energy for the people of the region. The scheme doesn’t succeed, and neither does the subplot, in part because it’s full of holes. Let’s put aside the unlikelihood of such civic-minded patriotism and deep compassion residing in a slave master and pedophile. I suppose it’s possible; people are complicated. But the Frontline documentary profiles the slave masters as wealthy businessmen, many of them former military commanders or warlords. So why does Jahander work in a meaningless job at an American power plant? Why would a wealthy businessman have such a job?
My guess is that Rosser and Sohne inserted that subplot as one of the ways they are trying to compensate for their Western perspective and the show’s focus on the fictional romance. But their efforts at filling in the background don’t strike me as sufficient. The Frontline documentary leads us to understand that Bacha Bazi has not been firmly entrenched in Afghanistan since ancient times. It is a criminal enterprise that has been reinstated only recently, one of the many consequences of a country ravaged by war and the breakdown of its civilization.
The Boy Who Danced On Air
Abingdon Theatre Company at June Havoc Theatre
Music by Tim Rosser; Book and lyrics by Charlie Sohne; Music direction by David Gardos; Choreography by Nejla Yatkin; Directed by Tony Speciale.
Scenic design by Christopher Swader & Justin Swader, costume design by, Andrea Lauer, lighting design by Wen-Ling Liao, sound design by Justin Graziani, prop design by Jerry Marsini, fight direction by Dan Renkin
Cast: Osh Ghanimah, Troy Iwata, Deven Kolluri, Jonathan Raviv and Nikhil Saboo
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $67 to $87
“The Boy Who Danced on Air” is scheduled to run through June 11, 2017.