In 2010, an episode of the PBS “Frontline” series aired a report on a long-standing practice in Afghanistan of fathers selling their sons to wealthier men. The sons were trained to dance, dressed in female clothing, and they provided entertainment for the buyer and his friends. Generally, these men were married and observant of strict laws designed to keep men and women separated. Often, the “Frontline” report disclosed, sexual exploitation was involved.
Charlie Sohne and Tim Rosser have written a musical, The Boy Who Danced on Air, about this practice, and Diversionary Theatre is offering its world premiere production. While not apologizing for sexual exploitation, the musical does attempt to examine the relationship between Paiman (Troy Iwata) and Jahandar (Jonathan Raviv), the man who bought him and taught him to dance. It’s admirable that the writers have not tried to oversimplify the story, but, like almost all world premieres, there is still work to be done.
Even so, this production is one of the best that Diversionary has presented in quite some time.
The story is difficult to view from a Western sensibility. The boys whose fathers sell them often come from extreme poverty, and the child is one of the only things a father can sell to keep the rest of the family alive. The men who buy the boys sometimes see them as property to be used and tossed aside, but not always. Jahandar, for example, sees himself as a keeper of great tradition, and he also sees himself as a mentor to the boys he buys. But, he tells himself that he must keep to tradition: one broken rule, he says, and everything falls apart.
So, when Paiman starts to develop facial hair, Jahandar arranges a marriage for him to a young woman from a far-away village. And, he starts making contacts to buy his next boy.
Are Paiman and Feda gay? Maybe, maybe not.
But, Paiman has fallen under the spell of Feda (Sittichai Chalyahat), another dancing boy. Feda is owned by Zemar (M. Keala Milles, Jr.), and he is well past puberty, much to Jahandar’s disapproval. Zemar treats Feda more cruelly than Jahandar treats Paiman, but Feda has learned to be flirtatious, undoubtedly as a means of coping. Paiman is smitten, especially with Feda’s dream of escaping the village, moving to the city, and being able to make a living from singing and dancing.
Are Paiman and Feda gay? Maybe, maybe not. Jahandar has explained to Paiman that their sexual activity allows Jahandar to live his life within the rules while still fulfilling his needs. The activity (never shown) is portrayed as part of the life Paiman now leads, and he seems to have adjusted to it. Feda’s flirting, as well as Paiman’s fear of the impending arranged marriage, could well awaken genuine sexual feelings, but Paiman could just as easily be experiencing a first crush.
Mr. Sohne’s book and lyrics come down on the side of romance, and Mr. Rosser’s score emphasizes melodic lyricism, while adding quite a few references to Afghan musical traditions. It respects those traditions while being compelling to Western ears. The elegance of the score is not always matched by the lyrics, which sometimes strain for poetic quality.
Such a problem, while real, can be fixed as the musical develops further. A more pressing problems occurs with the arc of the story, which ends Act 1 with declarations of love and struggles in Act 2 to tell the rest of the story with clarity.
Diversionary has mounted a technical production that fits its wide and shallow space while still providing room for the action. Director Tony Speciale effectively stages some of the action as shadows behind a gauze curtain and puts some of it into the audience at times in order make everything work – and it does. Sean Fanning’s set design isn’t beautiful, but it’s utilitarian. Wen-Ling Liao’s lighting design segments the stage into sections, and Shirley Pierson’s costumes fit the grittiness of small town life in Afghanistan. Sound designer Kevin Anthenill is on a roll. After outstanding work on Ragtime and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, he tackles making a four-piece band blend with individual and collective voices in Diversionary’s small space – and I’ve never heard it sound better. Cris O’Bryon’s music direction and Nejla Y. Yatkin’s choreography both help to evoke the place and culture of the story.
The cast is also a strong one. Each member is called on for significant solo work, and each delivers well, as does the fifth character, a narrator figure called The Unknown Man. As in Sondheim’s Into the Woods, the mysterious man turns out to be more than might be presumed, but this “reveal” is one of the second act places that needs work.
Audiences looking for pat solutions and easy answers may be frustrated with The Boy Who Danced on Air. Audiences who like to be challenged and enjoy seeing a work in development that could have a significant future life will be saying “bravo” by the end.