“This is a truly historical event in that Exile Theatre is the first Afghan theatre group to ever, ever come to the United States. Ever, not just in recent history, but really ever. This is truly a momentous occasion and in my mind it seems overwhelmingly amazing,” Sherman told Playbill.com from Baltimore, Maryland, where the companies were presenting their collaboration for 10 days prior to arriving in New York.
Beginning previews on Nov. 17 and officially opening Nov. 20 at Theatre for the New City for a run through Dec. 4, Beyond the Mirror does not contain the political bias one might expect. The goals of the two companies run much deeper than placing blame or pointing fingers. They wish to shine a spotlight on those ordinary Afghan citizens whose lives have been so violently and relentlessly disrupted by years of war.
Sherman explains, “we’re artists; we’re not newspapers and we’re not politicians. We’re here to give this message about these people and what they went through. In Afghanistan, very bad things happened to some very nice people and they didn’t really ask for this. This is the nature of war around the world. Most people just want to get up in the morning and have a nice day. They just want to have breakfast and send their kids to school. Nobody gets up and says ‘okay, let’s have a war today’.”
Beyond the Mirror, which is co-directed by Sherman and Mahmoud Shah Salimi, guides the audience through three decades of war and occupation as seen through the eyes of the everyday Afghans, the very people whose first-hand accounts, memories and stories give the show its emotional center. The performers use a variety of theatrical tools and methods to allow audiences to connect to the harrowing experiences being played out before them.
The distinctive theatre piece – which is part play, part music performance, part multimedia show and part physical comedy—was born out of a melding of the unique styles of the two companies and the differing theatrical traditions of their home countries. While Afghans have been creating theatre for centuries—and were even exposed to the techniques of the famed acting coach Constantin Stanislavski from the occupying Russian forces during the 1980’s—Sherman sees Bond Street’s collaboration with Exile Theatre not only as one of artistic companionship, but one of helping to illuminate some lost theatrical traditions. Working together has rekindled for the Afghan artists “things like martial arts, mime, circus skills and different kind of dance forms. Things [Bond Street has] gathered from the Peking Opera. There’s also puppetry and different visual forms. This is really revitalizing something they’ve had for hundreds of years. They’re just rediscovering it, so it looks very new.”
After giving the piece its world premiere earlier this summer at the 2nd Afghan Theatre Festival in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city, Bond Street and Exile Theatre traveled to Japan, where Beyond the Mirror participated in the Asia Meets Asia Festival, before coming to the United States. This was the first time that most of Exile Theatre’s members had ever traveled beyond the borders of Afghanistan.
“They didn’t care for the food very much,” Sherman remembers.
While the members of Exile Theatre may still be acclimating themselves to the hustle and bustle of the American lifestyle, Bond Street’s performers went through a period of adjustment themselves during the initial months of their collaboration with Exile Theatre in the Middle East. Having met in the refugee camps of Pakistan in the weeks following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Bond Street and Exile Theatre were immediately struck with each other’s work and planned to create a new work together.
It was in this setting, far from the finances, bright lights and reviews of New York theatre that Beyond the Mirror was conceptualized.
Sherman acknowledges, “We were dealing with very difficult material. Because we were only performing it for Afghans we took it and we performed in a very abstract, very stylized [almost] schematic way that I think was about as much as the Afghan audiences could take at that moment because it was all so fresh and so new. This was our first version of the show, and then coming back in 2004 we started to rework it and make it much more personalized. It’s just amazing to see these people who’ve been through this incredible thing and seen things that you and I have never seen – and never hope to see – and then [to ask] how are we going to be able to put this on the stage in a way that people are going to be on the edge of their chair and not sit with their hands in their face?”
Performing Beyond the Mirror in such polarized and completely different environments as the Middle East and the United States has presented a number of challenges for the companies. The cast came up against a silent, yet potentially harmful, protest while performing for a group of students in a refugee camp just across the border in Pakistan.
“We did have one situation where they threw stones at us during our performance,” Sherman explained. “They were just little pebbles, but still it sends a great big, big message. They had been told by one of their teachers that whatever it was that we were performing, it wasn’t going to be good. It wasn’t good for them to see this. Don’t respond to it. If you think about it, when all the Taliban scattered to different parts [of the region] they became refugees as well. [They went to the] refugee camps, the same as everyone else.”
Despite minor discouragements such as these, Bond Street and Exile Theatre have been extremely pleased with the response to Beyond the Mirror, both in Afghanistan and Japan, as well as so far here in the United States. In continuing with their groundbreaking collaboration, the companies plan to continue to create new works of theatre and to tour Beyond the Mirror to other cities. The play's message of humanity is what drives the performers each time they step on the stage.
“I think that’s what the Afghans really responded to, was the fact that we were portraying Afghans as people like anybody else. That’s exactly what [Exile is] grappling with here. The misconception that Afghans are somehow all terrorists, or at least that they condone it. Nobody condones that. They, of course, don’t condone anything that will bring more grief on more people, because they’ve lived through that grief. That’s something they can understand better then we can.”
Beyond the Mirror begins performances on Nov. 17 and runs at Theatre for the New City through Dec. 4. The cast features Salim Asir, Seth Bloom, Christina Gelsone, Michael McGuigan, Quraishi, Jamil Royesh, Mahmoud Shah Salimi and Joanna Sherman. The set is by Sherman and McGuigan, with lighting by Jeanna Koening (Broadway’s The Lion King). Original music is by Quraishi, with video montages by McGuigan, Salimi and Bloom.
Tickets are $15, with a discounted price of $12 for students and seniors, and can be purchased by calling (212) 254-1109.