The U.S. war in Afghanistan has wound down, but the challenges facing the Afghan people continue. Taproot Theatre is currently presenting a play, In the Book Of, by John Walch, that deals with some of these ongoing challenges.
In the play, the character of Anisah has served as a translator for the U.S. military and now fears reprisals from some of her fellow countrymen as the U.S. military departs from Afghanistan. So she follows a sympathetic lieutenant home to a small town in the United States.
“I wanted to write about immigration in contemporary America, but didn’t just want to write an ‘issue play,’” playwright Walch said. “I wanted the play to be in conversation with the larger, historical discussion.”
Walch pulled from both the past and the present. Inspired by the biblical Book of Ruth, Walch sought to explore the issue of immigration from a more contemporary perspective. “Ruth is one of the earlier narratives about immigration as it is set in a time when trade is increasing mobility and people had to begin to deal with the reality that we don’t live in a bubble,” he said.
Walch said that the Book of Ruth provides an example for people to follow. “Boundaries will eventually be crossed, the challenge is how we deal with it—either we open our arms to them or we slam the door shut,” he said. “The Book of Ruth is an example of meeting the stranger with kindness and respect, giving them the dignity to work without harassment.”
Anisah, however, does not receive quite so warm of a welcome and must struggle with the challenges of integrating into a new community.
Despite these differences, Walch feels that both stories foreground the strength of women. “Like Ruth, Anisah is strong, determined, and coming into her independence,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say this is what interests me most about Afghanistan,” Walch added, “but in working on the play, I became fascinated with how women are becoming more and more empowered and shaping the cultural conversation. Look at someone like Malala Yousafzai, (the Pakistani 15-year-old shot for advocating education): it’s just incredible.”
Walch expects to continue drawing upon historical sources for pathways into presenting dramatic work about contemporary issues. “It kind of goes back to my first thoughts, when you put something contemporary against something historical,” he said. “It lets the contemporary story be bigger because it’s in conversation with timeless themes, events, characters.”
While this production is Walch’s Seattle premiere, he hopes to connect with our region more in the future.
Although he was not involved in the selection of this play by Taproot, or in the initial casting or directorial process, Walch did join the Taproot team for the final week of rehearsals and for opening night, and looks forward to his next visit to the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s part of why I wanted to come and work with Taproot: they are new to me,” Walch said.
The following is a Q&A with playwright John Walch:
International Examiner: What motivated you to become a writer, and specifically a playwright?
John Walch: I grew up working in the theatre, my uncle is a director and I hung around a lot of backstage doors. I liked the worlds that could be created, the way each was unique and had its own rules and logic. I liked to build these worlds, literally, at first as a set and lighting designer, and that began to morph into me creating them with words and writing plays.
IE: What challenges have you faced during your career as a playwright? And how have you overcome some of those challenges?
JW: Aside from the whole eating thing? That was solved by learning all the magical things you can do with a packet of Ramen noodles initially. But after roughly twenty years, the challenges I’m facing mid-career are different. So many of the people I grew up working with have moved on to other professions, some related (like film and television), some not (real-estate). So I’m seeing my base of collaborators eroding and need to find new people and groups who are inspired by my work and who inspire me. It’s part of why I wanted to come and work with Taproot, they are new to me.
IE: What sparked your interest in writing a contemporary version of the Book of Ruth? What about Afghanistan interests you the most?
JW: I wanted to write about immigration in contemporary America, but didn’t just want to write an “issue play.” I wanted the play to be in conversation with the larger, historical discussion. Ruth is one of the earlier narratives about immigration as it is set in a time when trade is increasing mobility and people had to begin to deal with the reality that we don’t live in a bubble. Boundaries will eventually be crossed, the challenge is how we deal with it–either we open our arms to them or we slam the door shut. The Book of Ruth is an example of meeting the stranger with kindness and respect, giving them the dignity to work without harassment.
The Ruth character in the play, Anisah, is from Afghanistan who worked with the military as a translator. Like Ruth, she is strong, determined, and coming into her independence. I wouldn’t say this is what interests me most about Afghanistan, but in working on the the play, I became fascinated with how women are becoming more and more empowered and shaping the cultural conversation. I mean look at someone like Malala Yousafzai, (the Pakistani 15-year-old shot for advocating education), it’s just incredible.
IE: You have also written about Iraq in concept. How did your interest in the Middle East and Asia develop?
JW: I didn’t exactly write about Iraq, I wrote a play that used the structure of how the Bush Administration engaged with Iraq to tell a very unhappy story about a relationship between a man and a woman, with all its manipulations and power-grabs. It’s hard to have lived through the last decade without taking an interest in the Middle East.
IE: Many of your plays concern historic eras. How did your interest in history and the past develop?
JW: That’s interesting, I don’t really think of it that way, but you’re right, history is often somewhere in the mix. It kind of goes back to my first thoughts, when you put something contemporary against something historical, it let’s the contemporary story be bigger because it’s in conversation with timeless themes, events, characters.
IE: Were you involved in the play selection process at Taproot Theatre in Seattle? Will you be involved in the rehearsal process?
JW: I was not involved in the selection process. The play was being done at another regional theatre and Scott Nolte (Producing Artistic Director of Taproot) saw their listing, and contacted me about the play. I’ve been here for the final week of rehearsals and will stay through opening.
IE: Are you currently working on or planning any future plays about Asia?
JW: I’m actually working on an Irish play about the transatlantic cable that was laid in 1857 …. there’s your history again! The play is a farce that juxtaposes the first innocent electronic smooch across the world with the full on digital orgy we find ourselves in today. It’s tentatively titled, What God Hath Wrought, which is a play on the message from the first telegraph ever sent by Samuel Morse from Baltimore to Washington. Morse’s telegram simply asked: “What Hath God Wrought?” We’ll see if it sticks! I have a workshop of the play in New York at New Dramatists in late April.
IE: Do you have any connections to Seattle or Washington state, or any future plans to visit or work in our region?
JW: I certainly hope so! And my niece just started school at University of Puget Sound, so that will certainly bring me out here again.