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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 8,

2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Playwrighting for a Cause

In William Mastrosimone’s new play "The Afghan

Women," an Afghan-American woman physician who runs an orphanage

takes a stand against a marauding warlord. The warlord wants to

overthrow

the government, knows he’s being hunted down, and plans to use the

children as a shield until he gets to the Pakistan border. After

exhausting

all other possibilities, the physician persuades three women who are

taking refuge with her to help kill the warlord. Within the brutal

situation is the conflict between the women over whether freedom and

democracy is the right thing for Afghanistan.

The world premiere of "The Afghan Women" begins previews at

Trenton’s Passage Theater, Thursday through Sunday, October 9 to 12.

Opening night is Thursday, October 16, for the production that

continues

through Sunday, November 2.

"Why Afghanistan," I ask?

Mastrosimone’s fast response — "The flights were cheaper than

to Uruguay" — doesn’t quite cut it, but it does take me by

surprise. But it is no less unexpected than the gripping story that

this Trenton-based writer of stage screen and teleplays proceeds to

tell me during an enlightening phone interview. As it turns out, the

story behind "The Afghan Women" could well serve as a play

or film in its own right. And as I discover, Mastrosimone’s incredible

but true account comes from a man who is playwright, intrepid

adventurer,

and social activist.

Mastrosimone traces his interest in Afghanistan back to 1980 when

his first New York produced play, "The Woolgather," was in

rehearsal and about to open at Off-Broadway’s Circle Repertory

Company.

The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in December, 1979, and all through

1980 he was reading the New York Times during rehearsals, "when

a writer has nothing to do," he says, recalling how he began

absorbing

the articles on Afghanistan and even dreaming about them. Dreaming

about Afghanistan would soon lead to his decision to go there and

also to write about it. He says he wanted to see the country for

himself

but chickened out a couple of times.

In January, 1981, after Mastrosimone had met with

wounded

Mujahadin (a faction that fought the Soviets but were perceived to

be corrupt by the Taliban) in New York, he bought a ticket. "I

spent a lot of time with them and they began to trust me. Eventually

they helped me with explicit instructions on how to get into

Afghanistan

by way of Pakistan," he says of the journey that would last two

eye-opening months. The journey began with the help of Mujahadin who

dressed Mastrosimone in appropriate attire to get across the border.

"Ironically," he says, "permission would come from a

warlord

with whom I wound up unexpectedly having lunch with, the notorious

Hekmatyar."

"I was just a babe in the woods when I met with Hekmatyar —

who could have done me in as easily as serve me tea," he says

as he continues to talk informatively about Hekmatyar of the Pashtun

tribe, an engineering graduate of Kabul University and head of the

once-powerful Mujahadin party Hezb-e-Islami.

"He is a monster who gave standing orders to his cohorts to throw

acid in the faces of any woman whose face was not covered. He is the

one responsible for trying to kill President Hamid Karzai a year ago

and probably was the one who killed Masood, the war hero of

Afghanistan,

on September 1, 2001. He is the one who set off a car bomb in the

market place in Kabul two years ago killing 25 people, and the one

who is fighting the United States right now."

Mastrosimone does acknowledge a more comforting relationship with

other Mujahadin when he first got there and had became ill with

amoebic

dysentery. By necessity the anti-Soviet guerilla fighters that were

escorting him had to leave him behind because they had ammunition

to bring to the front. Since they could only travel by night,

Mastrosimone

says, "they apologized and left me at the bottom of a road that

led to little village. I knew something like this could happen when

I signed up for this. It was a hard night, cold and scary. The next

morning people from the village found me and carried me to the village

and took care of me until `those guys’ came back."

After days in the village doctor’s little hovel, an old woman came

in with a goat and asked about him. The doctor, who translated, told

her that he couldn’t have any solid food. She came back the next day

with a pot of soup. "Two days later I was better and walking

around

the village and saw the goat skin hanging on a tree," he recalls.

We both give thanks to the healing powers of homemade soup — be

it goat or chicken.

Mastrosimone says that his play is dedicated to this woman who killed

her goat for a complete stranger. "You can read about customs,

but when you are the recipient it is a whole other thing," he

says. He is particularly emphatic about the way his play is produced.

"I wrote it strictly as a fund-raiser for an organization —

International Orphan Care — founded by Hasan Nouri, an

Afghan-American

civil engineer and humanitarian. He explains that, under the Taliban,

orphans were not allowed to be adopted, but instead were put in

buildings

to be given a religious education.

"This is why it is important to fight terrorism," Mastrosimone

says, "so that the children don’t fall into the hands of the

fundamentalists.

Most of the hard-core Taliban army were orphans. Now is the time to

do the real work," says Mastrosimone, who is an I.O.C. board

member.

"I can’t think of anything better to lend my talent to," he

says about the I.O.C., which provides education and the skills for

a trade for the orphans. "I’ve already raised about $10,000 for

them. This goes a long way in Afghanistan. Right now," he says,

"there are 23 productions scheduled in the United States and seven

abroad.

Some of the people he met did, indeed, serve as models for the

characters

in "The Afghan Women."

"There is a character, a woman named Malalai, who is based on

several women, but mainly on a French-Afghan member of the

organization

Doctors Without Borders. I based another character Hamood on

Hekmatyar,

although I made him better," says Mastrosimone. The cast, directed

by Jonathan Bernstein, includes Cindy Katz, as the physician and

Christopher McCann, as the warlord.

When I suggest that Afghanistan would be the last place any one would

want to go at that time, Mastrosimone answers, "You’re trying

to trip me up with rational thinking. All I knew is that this is where

my interest is and I needed to know why."

Whether it was a dream or some other compelling metaphysical force

that led Mastrosimone there it would result in his first play dealing

with Afghanistan, "Nanawatai" (meaning sanctuary), in which

a Russian soldier turns to rebel Afghan guerillas after he is left

to die by his brutal comrades. "In 1988 it was made into a film,

`The Beast,’ and included things that I had observed in Afghanistan.

It was never released because the studio (Columbia) didn’t want to

advertise it. It had another film completed about Afghanistan, a

ludicrous

cartoon called `Rambo III’ starring Sylvester Stalone."

What Mastrosimone observed and heard would naturally

serve as the background for "The Afghan Women."

"For Americans to understand Afghans," he explains, "they

must realize that they are not an Arab people. They are the Caspian

branch of the Mediterranean people who had Islam imposed upon them.

Two years ago, when the United States demanded that they turn over

Osama Bin Ladin, they refused because their pre-Islamic laws, the

tribal laws, the unwritten laws of hospitality, are so strong that

they bind the tribes together. It is one of the most important aspects

of their society. Hospitality is a right in Afghanistan. You can knock

on someone’s door and demand hospitality. They must give or suffer

getting looked down upon by their peers. So when we made the demand

for Bin Ladin, they said, `He is a guest in our home.’ Most people

don’t realize that what we were asking them to do was to disavow a

principle upon which their culture is based."

Hospitality was extended to him by Mohmand, the Pakistan ambassador

to Afghanistan, who invited Mastrosimone to stay at his home in the

northwest frontier province. It is this province where Mastrosimone

says he suspects that Osama bin Laden is probably hiding out.

"When the British drew an arbitrary line from mountain peak to

mountain peak to divide Pakistan from Afghanistan, there was a whole

strip of Afghan tribes living on the Pakistan side. Not wanting to

live in Pakistan, they revolted, the result of which was the Pakistan

government granting them independence to live by their own laws within

the territory."

One of the more interesting aspects of "The Afghan Women"

is Mastrosimone’s reason for writing it. "I wrote this play for

Afghanistan and for the Afghan people who will see the conflict in

the play as going on in their world, a conflict that may go on for

generations. It is the conflict between those who want democracy and

those who want the status quo. There are a dozen men with private

armies who are holding the country back," says Mastrosimone. He

cites a statement by the warlord Hekmatyar quoted in the New York

Times: "I am a tribesman first, a Muslim second, an Afghan

third."

"That is the credo of the warlords. That is what keeps Afghanistan

from being a nation," says Mastrosimone.

The playwright is pleased that a theater group in Kabul, which had

been forbidden to perform during the Taliban regime, began translating

"The Afghan Women" a few weeks ago into Dari (the Afghan

dialect

of Farsi). Dari, rather than Pashto, serves as the means of

communication

between speakers of different languages in Afghanistan.

"I don’t keep in close contact, but they ask me questions every

once in while," says Mastrosimone, who insists that "The

Afghan

Women" was written independently of his professional career, as

a means to raise funds for the orphanage.

When I ask him if he had intentions to go to Kabul to see the

production,

he ponders: "Nice, but not very practical," he replies. A

more practical expectation is what he calls "close to being

fulfilled"

by just having the play done there.

Also fulfilling for Mastrosimone is his play about high

school violence, written for young adults, "Bang Bang You’re

Dead."

Posted free on the Internet, to be read and performed by anyone who

wanted it, there have been thousands of productions around the world,

including several in New Jersey schools. Written by Mastrosimone in

1998, in response to the rising incidence of school shootings by

students,

this 40-minute play (and winner of five Emmys) inspired the Showtime

cable movie of the same title. As with "The Afghan Women,"

it was written, as Mastrosimone says, "to say something important,

not to make money."

Making a living is something Mastrosimone does in Hollywood, or as

he calls it "paradise with a lobotomy" (stealing a quote from

an English critic he says he read recently). Despite his highly

profiled

success with the five-hour mini-series "Sinatra" (1992 Golden

Globe Award), Mastrosimone says he remains committed to serious work.

His HBO-produced film "The Burning Season" (Humanitas Award

1995 for Best Screenplay), about Brazilian hero Chico Mendes, was

the final work of the late Raul Julia and next to final work of the

late director John Frankenheimer.

Mastrosimone’s most commercially successful work to date is

"Extremities,"

his 1982 play that one both the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best

Play and The John Gassner Award for Playwriting), and later a film

starring Farah Fawcett. Among his other plays are "Shivaree,"

"Tamer of Horses," "Sunshine," "The Undoing,"

"Cat’s Paw," "A Stone Carver," "Burning

Desire,"

"Blinding Light," and "The Naked Maja."

Mastrosimone says he considers "The Afghan Women" his best

play. It is most similar in tone, however, he says, to

"Extremities,"

about a woman turning the tables on a would-be rapist. Mastrosimone

says he took the title from Euripides’ "The Trojan Women,"

but unlike the passive women in that play who accept their fate he

wanted to write about women able to do something. Doing something

different with his plays, as he says, "keeping them out of the

commercial sphere" is what makes Mastrosimone entirely unique.

If commercial theaters want to do "The Afghan Women," they

have to do it as a fund-raiser. In closing, I repeat my first

question.

Why Afghanistan? "It just happened," he answers modestly.

Although the 56-year-old Mastrosimone says he loves writing plays

and the theater, he says he doesn’t see it as a sane way to make a

living. More commercial projects such as his recent A&E production

"Benedict Arnold," with Aidan Quinn and Kelsey Grammer, the

1994 film "With Honors," with Joe Pesce and Brendan Fraser,

and the upcoming film version of his play "Like Totally

Weird,"

which begins filming this month in Boston, provide for his wife,

Sharon,

and their four children. The blended family comprises two sons from

Sharon’s previous marriage and two daughters they have together.

A native of the Trenton area, Mastrosimone says he caught the writing

bug when he was a student at Pennington Prep. He received his

undergraduate

degree in literature in 1974 from Rider University, and earned his

MFA in 1976 from Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts.

Mastrosimone’s writing skill was also noticed by Princeton graduate

Norman Stephens, then working for Warner Brothers, who hired him to

write the teleplay for "Sinatra." Currently in partnership

with Stephens, the two men have formed a play and film production

company called "Jersey Guys." Mastrosimone is also about to

launch an on-line play publishing and licensing company,

IcarusPlays.com.

On the plus side, Mastrosimone can do all this without the permission

of any local warlord.

— Simon Saltzman

Afghan Women, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse,

Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766. Part of proceeds

goes to International Orphan Care. To November 2. $25. Thursday,

October 16, 8 p.m.


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