It’s easy to imagine what drew composer Tim Rosser and lyricist/librettist Charlie Sohne to bacha bazi, the subject matter behind their new musical, The Boy Who Danced on Air. The lives of Afghan “dancing boys,” poor young men conscripted by the wealthy into sexual slavery, offer high-stakes drama and political topicality. The resulting play is spirited and nuanced, but lacks the caution, finesse, and heterogeneity needed to avoid joining the ranks of American musicals that have tried to absorb non-Western cultures, only to abuse and debase them (which is most of them).
The play tells the story of Paiman (Troy Iwata), who is bought by Jahandar (The Lightning Thief and The Band's Visit's Jonathan Raviv) at a young age (in real life, the boys are often kidnapped as well; this is the first in a series of gambits by the creators meant to make Jahandar a more humane, relatable monster). For Jahandar, the virtue of bacha bazi, beyond the adultery-proof sexual release (it’s okay as long as the boys haven’t hit puberty), is its rootedness in tradition. The practice may be condemned across much of Islam, but its very survival proves its value to him. It’s like Fiddler on the Roof, if Tevye banged little boys.
In addition to serving as their masters’ personal playthings, the boys are often forced to have sex with other owners after they dance. Jahandar, however, has developed an attachment to Paiman because he is “different,” and spares him the trauma of being passed around. (See? He’s a considerate rapist.) Jahandar’s boorish cousin Zemar (Osh Ghanimah) has his own boy, Feda (Nikhil Saboo), but wants to have a go at Paiman. When Feda and Paiman meet, they fall in love and hatch a plan to escape to the city. Jahandar, meanwhile, is experiencing revolutionary stirrings as well and hatches his own plot at the American-built power plant where he and Zemar work.
The actors perform with a liveliness befitting a much larger stage, even though each has been directed as though in his own world. Raviv’s pious declamations sound straight out of Ben-Hur, Iwata and Saboo’s banter feels lifted from Broad City or Master of None, and Ghanimah delivers his one-liners like an Afghan Jackie Mason. Deven Kolluri, as the Unknown Man, is given the unrewarding task of hovering in and out of the story to narrate in song what we see happening on the stage in front of us.
The paralleling of Paiman’s and Jahandar’s stories seems deliberate; for each, their situation has become unbearable and requires direct action. While this eventually gives Paiman a depth that Iwata struggles to convey in the play's first act, it also has the unintended consequence of rationalizing Jahandar’s abusive actions even further. It’s only natural that someone who feels so powerless politically would seek to assert his power elsewhere, and he does, in increasingly vicious and cruel ways, ultimately attempting to marry Paiman off when he gets too old. The impulse of Sohne, Rosser, and director Tony Speciale to humanize the Other is admirable, yet in emphasizing Jahandar’s political awakening while liberally justifying his actions as the result of tension between his beliefs and his feelings, they have turned him into a sexually predatory Marius from Les Miz, shouting from the barricades while enjoying his little piece on the side. They’ve taken even more power from the nearly powerless, bogarting Paiman’s story right out from under him and making his slave master the "flawed" hero of it.
Which is not to say they condone anything about bacha bazi. It’s clear that the creators have approached this material with time and sensitivity (even if, according to the press kit, the extent of their research involved merely studying Afghan music, watching documentaries, and reading firsthand accounts). It’s also clear that this is an Afghan story being told by Westerners looking for the universal in the exotic, from the Ahrens/Flaherty, Pasek/Paul, and Menken musical stylizations, to the haphazard shadow theater techniques employed throughout. No Afghans were harmed in the making of this play (at least not physically), but it doesn’t appear that many were consulted, either. The result is a play that doesn’t dance on air so much as wallow in otherness.
The Boy Who Danced on Air runs through June 11 at Abingdon Theatre Company’s June Havoc Theatre (312 W. 36th St., between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, visit abingdontheatre.org or call (212) 352-3101.