“Blood and Gifts” – A Conversation with Playwright J.T. Rogers

A recent article in the New York Times pointed out that the United States’ war in Afghanistan remained “just a blip on the American news media’s radar in 2011.” The exact amount of coverage, in statistics from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, was given at 2 percent. Perhaps it is not surprising that the scope of the dealings that led to our involvement in that country are below-the-radar as well.

Blood and Gifts, a play by J.T. Rogers, creates a full overview of the issues and choices that were the precursors to our current situation. Commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater, and presented last year at the National Theatre, Blood and Gifts is currently being performed at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through January 8.

Inserted into the Playbill, audience members received a printed supplement outlining the background for the action about to unfold. Furnishing a bare bones history, it explains that Afghanistan “occupies the only access from Central Asia to the West.” With the Cold War heating up, the nation became of geo-political interest.

Aspiring to modernize, Afghanistan asked the United States for aid. When America declined, they then reached out to the adjacent Soviet Union—who assisted them in the role of “ally” for thirty years. In 1979, when the U.S.S.R. perceived that Afghanistan was going to create a partnership with America, they invaded.

It is against the backdrop of an active battle between the Soviet forces and the people of Afghanistan that Blood and Gifts is set. A full range of characters is introduced, including operatives from the CIA, the British MI6, the KGB, and Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI—as well as representatives from the national struggle. Each one has a very specific agenda.

The initial set is bathed in tones of blue, from the large square carpet to the six wooden benches placed along three sides. A lone suitcase sits on the floor. The actors enter, dressed in costumes ranging from suits to the turbans and mountain garb of the mujahideen.

The narrative is both riveting and instructive. The acting is top-notch. I reached out to J.T. Rogers to get additional insights into his process and endeavors in “theater that engages the public realm.”

This is not the first play where you have written about a political situation. Previously, in The Overwhelming, you tackled Rwanda. You have frequently noted that your father taught political science, and as a boy you lived in Malaysia and Indonesia. How has your background informed your choice of material?

I read an interview with Marsha Norman twenty plus years ago in which she made an observation that’s always stuck with me. She said that there are two kinds of American writers: Northern ones, who are both able–and go out of their way–to reinvent themselves; and Southern ones who know, no matter how far they travel, they will always be called home. I’ve always seen myself in the first camp, but now I’m not as sure. I was raised by divorced parents, spending much of each year both in central Missouri with my father and in the East Village. The constant in both homes was a passionate engagement in politics and a deep knowledge of and interest in other countries–both my parents having lived, together and apart, all over the world. As a playwright, I spent many years working through and then shedding different skins, trying to find my voice and the subject matters that truly gripped me. It’s only with hindsight that I understand that what my parents exposed me to, and what they raised me to value, would so inform my work. In essence, writing plays that delve into and are set against international and political concerns is simply me, as a writer, being called home.

As preparation for writing the play, you were able to dialogue with Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars, and Jack Devine who served at the CIA and oversaw the sale of the Stinger missiles—featured prominently in the story line. How did you weave those conversations into the fabric of Blood and Gifts?

In a nutshell, the process works likes this for me: I read an enormous amount about the historical and political history that the story I’m going to tell is set against. Only after I’m stepped in the events do I start interviewing people who were personally involved. My aim is not to talk with folks about “talking points” or to be further educated but to get into the personal: What did you eat? What was the light like? The smells? Who really, really pissed you off? And on and on. Playwrighting is about detail and specificity; I take the specific details that folks are kind enough to share with me and I weave them into the characters I’ve created. The characters are mine, but these details help to ground them.

The first section of the drama establishes the characters and the backstory of the conflict in Afghanistan. There is a lot of material to digest. In tandem with this arc, you present the personal histories of the main players—which connect them as individuals and through parallel situations. How did you create a balance between the two elements?

I don’t break the story or characters up that way. I try to create dramatic situations and personae where people have to talk about politics—where it is as life-and-death important as, say, sex or violence is in many other stories. There is some “table setting” in the first act, so that there is an emotional wallop and a good yarn in act two, but I’ve tried to weave the personal and the political throughout.

When a large American flag descends, to serve as a backdrop for a hearing at the United States Senate Building, the energy shifts. The murky cloak and dagger machinations of covert operations give way to spotlighting the issue of getting funding for the Afghan freedom fighters from “American taxpayers.” The previously established relationships, impacted by new forces, are operating in a new sphere. As the next piece in the puzzle, did you see this juncture as the place where the audience would readily identify?

Audiences tell you what your play is about. I’m always intrigued by how they react differently than I expected to some part of the story. In this production, when we arrive in DC at the top of Act Two there’s a palpable lowering of shoulders. There’s a collective sense of, “Ahhhhh, I know this world, I’m comfortable here.” But they do go back with me to Pakistan, and then Afghanistan, as the play hurdles on. The DC scenes have become an unforeseen “battery charge” for them, revving them up to go back to places and events that are deeply foreign to most of them.

The American agent, James Warnock, has a scene with his CIA boss where the focus is a moral exchange rather than one dealing with logistics. In this sequence, he asks, “Which action that I take will do less evil?” He is given the response, “In this work there is no perfect and no good.” By highlighting the personal as well as the national quandaries, you make the issues very relatable. What do you hope that theatergoers will take away from the play, and how does that reflect you initial goals in writing the play?

To say, There but by the grace of God go I. To ask themselves, “If I were in that position, screws tightening, the world seemingly hanging on my decision…what would I do, and what would my choice say about me?” I don’t have a point to make or theme to underline. I try to put the world on stage and let the audience decide what they think about who they meet and what transpires. Lots of questions raised but no answers given. Theater is good at the former, not so much at the latter.

This article originally appeared on cultureID

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