When Yousof Sultani first read the script for Sylvia Khoury’s “Selling Kabul,” running at Seattle Rep April 22 through May 22, the play immediately, deeply resonated with him.
“Being an Afghan American, it’s always really important to me to be able to find work like this that I can connect to,” said Sultani, a Chicago-based actor making his Seattle Rep debut. “To be an Afghan and to portray an Afghan character on stage really means a lot to me, so I had to jump at the opportunity to play this role.”
Sultani had previously auditioned last fall for the run of “Selling Kabul” that opened Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in November 2021. In September 2021, he discussed the fact that he felt like he had to do this play with director, dramaturge and educator Marina J. Bergenstock and Seattle Rep’s director of arts engagement Nabra Nelson on their HowlRound Theatre Commons-produced podcast “Kunafa and Shay,” which discusses Middle Eastern and North African theater.
“The thing is, it’s not even right for me in my life right now,” Sultani said at the time. “For me to do that play, it’s not a good time. But it’s a need to do it.”
That conversation came weeks after the chaotic events surrounding the evacuation of the United States military from Afghanistan. Speaking with Sultani recently, in advance of him finally taking the stage in “Selling Kabul” after scheduling ultimately kept him out of the Off Broadway production, it’s clear how strong his passion behind telling this story remains.
“For it to be a play about Afghanistan alone was enough to hook me and want me to perform in it,” said Sultani. “But because it was so closely tied to what was happening in Afghanistan in the last eight months made it even more something that I had to do — it wasn’t just something I wanted to do, it was something I needed to do. Just to be able to tell an Afghan story on stage and remind people that there’s still so much work to be done over there and still so much need.”
Khoury’s play, which premiered in 2019 at Williamstown Theatre Festival, takes place in 2013 and follows Taroon (Sultani), who served as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. The American military has withdrawn, and with them go their promises of his safety and their protection as he spends his days hiding from the Taliban and anxiously awaiting news from the hospital about the birth of his first child. Though Khoury’s script interweaves some comedy with serious subject matter, the play is filled with high tension and stakes alongside a questioning of the lack of compassion shown from the U.S. government.
The story and events in Afghanistan hit close to home for Sultani, who has had family based in America who have gone to translate in Afghanistan for the U.S. military. He himself has been directly involved in efforts to evacuate folks from the country, working to file for passports and writing recommendation letters for those in need.
“That was so fresh on my mind when reading this play,” Sultani said. “So much of this story mirrored the stories of people I was talking to on a daily basis. I’d get phone calls at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning with questions from Afghans needing translation or wondering how to fill out their forms or the best way to get to the airport.”
Sultani’s parents, both born and raised in Afghanistan, didn’t originally envision him becoming an actor. But over the years, they were touched by being able to see Sultani perform in Rajiv Joseph’s “Guards at the Taj,” about two Muslim guards at the Taj Mahal, and in Gabriel Jason Dean’s “Heartland,” a play specifically about Afghanistan.
“[‘Heartland’] was the first play that my parents came to see where I played an Afghan who wasn’t a terrorist — he was a mathematician, a professor, a romantic, a poet,” Sultani said. “They got to see me speak Dari on stage fluently. They got to see me pray on stage as an actor. And to see that story told for them was incredibly moving.”
One of the last moments Sultani was able to share with his father before he died was traveling to an audition for “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma from the Khaled Hosseini novel, at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. These moments with his family showed Sultani firsthand the impact authentic representation can have.
“Continuing to be able to tell Afghan stories means so much to me because I know how much it meant to my father,” Sultani said.
Not lost on Sultani is that this Seattle Rep production remains a rare opportunity to tell a story like “Selling Kabul” in a room filled with artists who are culturally connected to the material and where neither the playwright (as with “Heartland”) nor director (as with the directors of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” and “Guards at the Taj”) are white. Having cultural consultant Humaira Ghilzai in the room alongside a cast of Afghan and Iranian actors has led to Sultani feeling “overwhelmed and overjoyed” by the artists Seattle Rep has assembled.
This praise includes Seattle director Valerie Curtis-Newton, with both Curtis-Newton and Sultani seeing similarities between the experiences of those in the play and of Black people in the United States because, as Curtis-Newton put it, “the heart of these peoples’ disappointment in the promises of America — I didn’t have any problem with [it] at all.”
“Even though culturally I’m miles away from the Afghan experience, there are ways in which the promises of America really resonate with me,” Curtis-Newton said. “I think that, as a Black American, I do have questions about America’s ability to live up to what it says it wants to be about.”
Curtis-Newton pointed to issues like voting rights and the relationship between Black people and the police. She said she understands the feeling of betrayal that stems from America’s stated ideals versus its evident practices. She was able to help craft that part of the “Selling Kabul” message with the actors while Ghilzai was able to provide culturally specific guidance.
Sultani sees this play as an opportunity to humanize people from a region of the world that doesn’t necessarily always get humanized in media and show the lives that exist beyond numbers on a screen or in a report. It also offers the chance for audiences to grapple with the pervasive idea that Americans are always the good guys, always around to help.
“The fact is, we’re biased,” Sultani said. “I’m incredibly biased as an American to think that we’re always doing good. So much of the stuff that we’ve done as a country is swept under the rug. We don’t read about it. We don’t see it. We don’t know the effect that it has on people across the world.”
“Selling Kabul” serves as a way to show the lasting impact of America’s presence overseas. Sultani hopes people will see this play and walk away looking at the world in a different light and with a new understanding, or perhaps even feeling the need to act toward some sort of change.
“Sometimes we go to the theater to be entertained,” he said. “And sometimes, we go to the theater or movie theater or watch a television show to feel something. It’s not always about entertainment, sometimes it’s about being moved. I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about this play. I think that it will give that opportunity for the audience to feel something.”