Poppies, Kid Rock and the Taliban
Rohan’s “Pandemonium” highlights and humanizes Afghanistan’s Opium Wars

COURTESY MICHAEL REDMAN. A scene from Pandemopium.

COURTESY MICHAEL REDMAN. A scene from Pandemopium.

Afghanistan’s rural Kandahar province — the cradle of the Taliban insurgency — has a plant problem. Poppies, the Dorothy-red flowers that are tapped to make opium, outnumber the citizens. Landowner Ashraf Amini, played by Adly Alec Abdel-Meguid (COL ’17), presides over his poppy farm, nestled at the base of a mountain in Kandahar.

Desperate to provide for his two children and wife, Ashraf sells poppies at a premium to Taliban officials, childhood friends to whose activities he turns a blind eye. Yet, hot on the trail of the Taliban and its poppy suppliers, the national authorities are on the prowl.

A visit by guns-blazing Afghan National Army member Lt. Jafari, played by Jesse Robinson, a senior at George Mason University, drags Ashraf deeper in the mud; Jafari, who affects a Texan accent and whose entrances are accompanied by Kid Rock’s “You Never Met a Motherf—er Quite Like Me,” threatens ruin for his precious poppies if Ashraf does not surrender his Taliban business partner, who, unbeknownst to Jafari, just so happens to be dead.

Connor Rohan’s (COL ’16) startlingly sober play “Pandemopium,” performed in a stage reading Monday at the Terrace Theater as part of the John F. Kennedy Center Center for the Performing Arts’ 14th annual Page-to-Stage festival, thoughtfully explores the effects of war and the vexing dilemmas of loyalty that plague Afghanistan and its residents.

The distinction between hero and villain are murky, as Ashraf is squeezed between the Afghan National Army, which provides security, and the Taliban, which provides livelihood. While opium farmer and patriarch Ashraf is the protagonist of the play, his opium-addict brother-in-law Said, played by Asif Majid (GRD ’15), emerges as the hero, debunking traditional roles.

“In a country hampered by unemployment, a lot of Afghans grow poppies because they flourish in arid areas and are highly profitable, yet poppy farmers are [vilified] for producing drugs. I wanted to humanize these people who are being portrayed as immoral drug producers,” Rohan said, following the reading.

In this vein, “Pandemopium” purposefully centers on familial relationships and loyalties, sealing its success as a humanizing work. In a war zone, kids are not asking where babies come from — they are wondering if their teddy bears can protect them from the bad guys and whizzing bullets.

While Rohan intended to maintain political neutrality in his piece, illustrating stereotypes of cultural assimilation through the dramatic portrayal of Jafari, “Pandemopium” is tinted with liberal thought.

Ashraf’s children — Omar, played by Natalia Ortiz (COL ’16), and Sher, played by Abhinav Gupta (SFS ’17) — pepper their father with difficult questions about everything from American technology to the meaning of jihad. Omar dreams of owning a boat that will facilitate his escape from Afghanistan. He is not old enough to recognize the geographical constraints of landlocked Afghanistan, yet he realizes the imminent danger in remaining in the country.

“The reality is, that there are many kids who experience these sorts of hardships and we know about them … yet we don’t usually hear their voices,” Ortiz said. “Connor gave these children a voice through the character of Omar, and what Omar had to say was that there is always something to hope [for], to believe in.”

Rohan wrote the play as part of the “Hope Playwriting Seminar” course; it won the 2015 Donn B. Murphy One-Acts Award and was thus Georgetown University’s entry to the festival. As a staged reading, actors, directed by Georgetown Director of Theater and Performance Studies Maya Roth, had to overcome the difficulties presented by the nature of the festival; the cast had a mere five hours to ready themselves for their performance, a grueling task that demands actors learn and master their characters and the script in one fell swoop.

With no props, costumes or blocking, the performance required the actors engage the audience through line delivery and hand gestures, which the cast tackled seamlessly, treating the emotional subject matter with equal ease and respect.

Despite being driven by a weighty narrative, Rohan does not wholly eschew his improv background; “Pandemopium” also eloquently reconciles its subject with comedy, delivering a performance that is both deeply contemplative and engaging. “Pandemopium” is a clear product of sensitive and thorough understanding of the issues perpetuating Afghanistan’s nearly 40-year unrest, and it handles the conflict with a keen integrity.

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