'The Kite Runner' brings Afghan story to Broadway The play is based on Khaled Hosseini's 2003 best-selling novel, set in Afghanistan and among Afghan migrants in the United States.

'The Kite Runner' brings life in Afghanistan to Broadway

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"The Kite Runner" was a bestselling 2003 novel by Khaled Hosseini. The book painted a portrait of life in Afghanistan and its immigrant community in the United States. Tomorrow night, a stage adaptation opens on Broadway. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Khaled Hosseini was working as a doctor in California and writing "The Kite Runner" when 9/11 happened. So not wanting to capitalize on a tragedy, he set it aside. But, he says...

KHALED HOSSEINI: My wife and my family spoke to me and said, you know, you - Afghanistan is always portrayed as this place where there's mountains and terrorists and drugs. And you can really help change that image a little bit and help show a human face with this book.

LUNDEN: And after it was published, it became a worldwide phenomenon. It was turned into a movie. And although it's been banned by some schools for adult themes, it's part of the curriculum for many high schools.

HOSSEINI: The best thing about this whole experience for me is that people have walked away from this book with an appreciation for the plight of Afghan people, for the plight of refugees and displaced people, as in fostering in people a sense of understanding, empathy and compassion. And that's enormous for me. That's a great honor. And I hope people seeing this play will also walk away with those same feelings.

LUNDEN: Playwright Matthew Spangler hopes so, too. He teaches performance studies and immigration studies at San Jose State.

MATTHEW SPANGLER: "Kite Runner" sits at that intersection for me between adaptation and then my own teaching and research in how refugees and asylum seekers are represented.

LUNDEN: A couple of years after the novel was published, he contacted Hosseini about adapting it for the stage. The play got its first professional performance in 2009 and has been produced at many theaters since.


ERIC SIRAKIAN: (As Hassan) What does it say, Amir Agha?

AMIR ARISON: (As Amir) It says Amir and Hassan, the sultans of Kabul.

SIRAKIAN: (As Hassan) That makes it official then. This tree belongs to us. Did you bring the book?

ARISON: (As Amir) Right here. That Hassan would grow up illiterate, like most servants, was decided the minute he was born, so I read to him.

LUNDEN: Spangler has kept the first-person narrative of the central character, Amir, who remembers growing up in Afghanistan in the 1970s before the Soviet invasion. Amir is haunted by how he didn't defend his best friend Hassan from sexual violence at the hands of a bully. Playwright Matthew Spangler.

SPANGLER: I think what really drives the play is that it's more than just a story. The macro-objective, if you will, for the character - the actor who's playing the main character of Amir - is to get the audience's forgiveness for this terrible thing that he did when he was a kid.

ARISON: This is the Mount Kilimanjaro of acting roles that I've ever seen in my career.

LUNDEN: The character of Amir is played by actor Amir Arison. He doesn't leave the stage for a single moment over 2 1/2 hours.

ARISON: I have to get my voice prepared. I have to get my body prepared. And I have to get my mind prepared. And I have to get the accent prepared. I have to get the language prepared. I have to get the history prepared. I have to get playing a 12-year-old prepared. I have to get spanning 26 years prepared.

LUNDEN: And one of the ways Arison prepared was by working with cultural consultant Humaira Ghilzai. She and her family fled from Afghanistan after the Soviet occupation and landed in San Jose, Calif., where her best friend was Khaled Hosseini's younger sister.

HUMAIRA GHILZAI: When I sit in that theater, I'm looking at every aspect of it with my Afghan eyes. What would an Afghan see when they're sitting here? You know, if the turban is wrong, the accent is wrong, and somebody's body language doesn't match that part of the world, it's going to take them away from that experience.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing in non-English language).

LUNDEN: For instance, in a wedding scene, she coached the actors on the proper way to kiss the Quran.

GHILZAI: There was one Afghan young woman who said, I could see myself up there on that stage, you know, in my Nikah ceremony.

LUNDEN: In addition to creating authenticity in the staging, director Giles Croft says the adaptation compresses a sprawling Dickensian narrative filled with melodrama and makes it stage worthy.

GILES CROFT: You can channel all that stuff into a sort of epic form of theater making. And the best way to make epic theater is to make it simply and to allow the audience's imagination to do a lot of the work.

LUNDEN: So that epic kite flying contest in Kabul - no kites.


ARISON: (As Amir) The streets were filled with kite fighters all looking up, trying to gain position to cut an opponent's line.

LUNDEN: "The Kite Runner's" producers are hoping audiences have more than just an imaginative, empathetic experience at the theater. Portions of every ticket sold go to humanitarian organizations, which help people in Afghanistan as well as refugees. Khaled Hosseini's foundation is one of the recipients.

HOSSEINI: I'm grateful to the production for doing that. And it's the right thing to do. And I'm glad they've gone that direction. I thank them for it.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


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