By Ryan Leeds
Composer Tim Rosser and book writer/lyricist Charlie Sohne are relative newcomers to the musical theater scene, but their New York debut of The Boy Who Danced on Air proves that they’ve already earned a high ranking spot beside seasoned professionals. After seeing their well-crafted Off-Broadway show at the June Havoc Theatre, you’ll understand why they received a 2015 Jonathan Larson grant award and a 2015 ASCAP Mary Rodgers/Lorenz Hart Award.
Rosser and Sohne have chosen a delicate and difficult subject matter in which to musicalize, but the result is a provocative, thoughtful, and moving story that explores a world few of us realize exists.
That world is “bacha bazi” — a slang, Dari phrase from Afghanistan which means “boy play.” It is an ancient tradition in which affluent men buy young boys from destitute families and train them to dance for their clandestine, group gatherings. The boys are often dressed in feminine attire and, at the end of the night, they are sold to the highest bidder for sexual purposes.
The Abington Theater Company’s production opens as our narrator (Deven Kolluri) describes the silhouetted scene occurring behind him: Jahandar (Jonathan Raviv), an employee at the local power plant, has just acquired Paiman (Troy Iwata), a 16-year-old boy who is naïve to his new life but will soon learn to “dance a brand new dance to a song he never chose.” At first, Paiman is the only bacha bazi boy among the men, but he is quickly joined by Feda (Nikhil Saboo). The 17-year-old is under the ownership of Zemar, (Osh Ghanimah) a fellow worker and cousin to Jahander. Eventually, Feda and Paiman will forge a romantic bond, inciting jealously and anger from Jahander and Zemar.
It is impossible to watch this deeply disturbing tale without judgment for this dark practice and questioning its morality. At one point, Zemar tells Jahander, “Tradition says a lot of things — but it’s people who decide what to hold onto.” Although it may be easy to criticize Eastern rituals, we must not forget that Western beliefs are also flooded with “pick and choose” philosophies and ideas that may be abhorrent to outsiders. It should be noted, however, that bacha bazi is condemned by the Quran and is forbidden in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, law enforcement officials do little to prevent the practice and in fact, are complicit with those involved.
It has also been reported in the media that United States armed forces who occupied the war-torn country were told by military officials to turn a blind eye to the practice and the matter should be left to local officials.
It ‘s hard to comprehend that a musical depicting pedophilia could actually work, but in Rosser and Sohne’s hands, it is handled with sensitivity and delicate understanding. Their songs combine various styles but are mostly based on traditional Middle Eastern music (Hidyat Honari emphasizes the sounds with the rubab, a plucked string instrument), pop music, and ballads. Under music director David Gardos, the band fully realizes some of the most gorgeous and original tunes heard on or Off-Broadway in ages.
Director Tony Speciale is cautious not to lead the cast with an overly heavy hand. Lucky for him—and us—his entire cast is comprised of intelligent and skillful actors who make each part distinctly their own. Iwata and Saboo simultaneously shine and break hearts with their impressive vocals and acting performances. Raviv paints a complex portrait of a man torn between his faith and his sexuality. Ghanimah delivers a rounded performance which toggles between levity and licentiousness and Kolluri rounds out the group as a forlorn onlooker.
The source material is derived from the PBS Frontline documentary titled The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan. I watched the special after I saw the show and found it hugely unsettling. Compared to this musical, it goes much more in depth and fearlessly examines the consequences this tradition can bring. To that end, I felt as though Rosser and Sohne sanitized the depiction of bacha bazi and sympathized too much with men who orchestrate and participate in it. Perhaps this is a narrow-minded view, but when the lives of innocent children in any part of the globe are undermined by abusive men in power, righteous indignation is my only response. Still, I commend them for exposing the subject and bravely tackling such a complicated matter with earnest humanity and heart.
The Boy Who Danced on Air
June Havoc Theatre
312 West 36th St. NYC
Through June 11, 2017
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.