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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
but chickened out a couple of times.
In January, 1981, after Mastrosimone had met with
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
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
with whom I wound up unexpectedly having lunch with, the notorious
"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
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
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,
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
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
civil engineer and humanitarian. He explains that, under the Taliban,
orphans were not allowed to be adopted, but instead were put in
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
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
"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
Some of the people he met did, indeed, serve as models for the
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
Doctors Without Borders. I based another character Hamood on
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
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
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
"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
of Farsi). Dari, rather than Pashto, serves as the means of
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
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
he ponders: "Nice, but not very practical," he replies. A
more practical expectation is what he calls "close to being
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
which begins filming this month in Boston, provide for his wife,
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
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,
On the plus side, Mastrosimone can do all this without the permission
of any local warlord.
— Simon Saltzman
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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