Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sunday Feature: Interview - Playwright Kawa Ada on The Wanderers

Trauma, Collaboration, and Powerhouse Women 
One of the main things is that I want audiences to come away having seen a play from the vantage point of an Afghan.
by Keely Kwok 

Immediately after graduating from The Boston Conservatory, Kawa Ada was cast on Broadway in Bombay Dreams.  Since then, his credits have included shows with Tarragon, Factory, Canadian Stage and three seasons at The Shaw Festival. A past recipient of the Emerging Theatre Artist Award from Canadian Actors' Equity, Kawa is currently the Resident Artist at the Cahoots Theatre Company, where he recently served as the Interim Artistic Director.  Next, Ada stars in Sky Gilbert’s newest play, Hackerlove at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and the film, Jihad Gigolo, which he also wrote.  He was born in Kabul, Afghanistan.

As I walked into Cahoots theatre to meet playwright and actor Kawa Ada, I stepped right into the middle of cast and crew taking a break from The Wanderers rehearsals. Kawa Ada was mid-bite and jumped up to introduce himself and shake my hand. Kawa exudes a kind of radiant kindness; it’s like a breath of fresh air. He also gave me fair warning that he can be chatty which was great for me because what Ada had to say is spoken with absolute eloquence, fascination, and humility. So, without further ado, here is my interview with the ever charming Kawa Ada. 

CHARPO: Who or what inspired you to write this play, The Wanderers?

ADA: The inspiration really came from my mother. This play is for all intents and purposes homage to her and her beautiful sense of mystery, wonder, and the kind of mythology and superstition with which she raised us. I was a child of war and we fled from the war in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion. We moved to various countries and finally ended up in Canada when I was about eight years old. My mother’s spirit and energy with which she raised myself and my siblings was so vital when we were fleeing and moving to all these different countries. It really allowed us to have this kind of understanding but also a kind of respect and reverence for the mythic and the unknown. And that really kept our imaginations alive for all of us. 

There’s a character in the play that’s based on my mother, a little girl in the play. She’s an Afghan girl and is based on how I imagined my mother would be as a young girl. The bigger themes of the play are legacy, mythology, family history, and war. And all those things kind of interrelate with my upbringing and my mother is kind of the figure who brought all those things together. 

even as a child, I think I understood that we were in a different part of our existence

CHARPO: You said you were eight years old when you came to Canada. What was that experience like? 

ADA: I feel like I have always considered the early part of my childhood to be one thing and the second part of my childhood to be here in Canada. So the early part of my childhood is very much about displacement. I was really young when we fled the war in Afghanistan. My mother was actually pregnant at the time when we fled- on foot- and my father went a different route. As much as my parents tried to protect me from knowing what was going on, I think children have the ability and the great sense to know what their parents are going through. And I think I definitely had that. My mother kind of corroborates this, that I had an understanding as a baby that we were fleeing a war, that we were fleeing danger. We first moved to Pakistan. My sister was born there. My father joined us in Pakistan after he went through all these trials and tribulations trying to get out of Afghanistan, which is a whole other play! From there we went to India, then to Switzerland, then back to India. And then from India we moved to Canada. So that early part of childhood was mixed with wonderment but also displacement and knowing that we were running from something. And that exists in the play, a something that you’re haunted by. And I think children of war and refugees of war have an innate sense, and I’m speaking from my experience and my parents, but I’m guessing that it’s true for most people who flee a war that you never truly leave it. It comes with you. It stays with you. It’s trauma. 

And then when we finally moved to Canada, everything changed. It was a completely different kind of culture than what I had been used to. And again, even as a child, I think I understood that we were in a different part of our existence. We were starting fresh and from here on in, everything would be different. 

This play really exists because of my parents. It deals with a lot of tough issues but it also comes from a place of deep respect for my parents and the sacrifices they made to try and give us the best life possible given what we began with. 

CHARPO: When you were writing, did you have to go back to your parents and ask about certain details? What research went into The Wanderers?

ADA: I tried very hard not to go back to my parents. I tried to come to some understanding from my own memory bank of what I grew up with and not corroborate any of those with my parents. I also wanted to come up with my own kind of mythology or my own fiction around the truth that was given to me as I was growing up. So I didn’t go back to them. And truth be told, my parents don’t even really have any idea that this play exists. I don’t think they’ll know what it is until they come and see it. And because the play is a gift to my mother, I didn’t want her to have any sense of what it was going to be. But a lot of research went into it. My own research based on books, articles, and interviews about Afghanistan. There’s also disease in this play and it required a great deal of research. 

When my mom grew up, Afghanistan was very liberal and modern and that stayed with her.

CHARPO: How do you think your mom’s going to react when she sees the play?

ADA: You know, my mother has always been a defender of the arts. She was raised during a period of Afghanistan’s history when there was a great revival of art and education and a pushing towards progress. When my mom grew up, Afghanistan was very liberal and modern and that stayed with her. That’s what she raised us with: the idea of progress and to be progressive. So I think she will come and see this with a real open mind and understanding that she is watching art. Or at least that her son is trying to make art! 

CHARPO: And succeeding! So what was the workshop process like for this play?

ADA: It first started in Toronto in the Hothouse Playwriting Unit. That was a time when Nina Lee Aquino, who’s directing the play, was the artistic director. Nina has been instrumental. Three years ago I was doing the Shaw Festival and I had this impetus to start writing again. I sent a grant proposal to Nina and Cahoots theatre and she accepted it! She called and said “I will accept you into our playwriting unit but I need to know this is something you really want. And I will help you.” And that was the beginning of this beautiful relationship between Nina and myself because she really took me under her wing. It was three years ago that she became a mentor to me and I’m utterly grateful for that mentorship because it’s allowed me to learn skills that I never thought I’d be learning at this point. Not only did she bring me into the unit as a playwright so I could begin workshopping the play but she’s a real believer in giving a voice to young artists of colour and young artists who identify as diverse. She’s so supportive of those artists and she wants to give a platform for them. That’s what she did for me and this play would not exist if not for her support. 

What’s really vital is that the play no longer belongs to me.

CHARPO: That’s fantastic. 

ADA: It really is. And the beautiful thing about this play is that it revolves around beautiful and strong women. That’s the whole reason this play exists. Because of my mother to begin with and then to have someone like Nina who is this respected artist and powerful woman, take me on. And then Marjorie Chan, the new artistic director, to then pick it up and produce it. For me, I’m so grateful to all these powerful women who are behind this play. 

CHARPO: That’s so awesome! So when did you start writing The Wanderers? 

ADA: I started in my last year at Shaw. It was with one little scene that began between a son and a father. The initial idea was, what would happen if I were to take the old symbols of the father, the son, and the holy ghost, and what could I do with those three figures? It’s been three years in the making. 

CHARPO: What is the most surprising change the play has gone through from conception to now? 

ADA: I think what happened is that it began with an Afghan family and as soon as I began writing about other people in Canada who had an effect and impact on this Afghan family, then the play really broke open. It’s now about two families, one Canadian and one Afghan.

CHARPO: You’re also acting in the show. What was it like going from writer to actor? Is it difficult as the playwright to follow someone else’s direction? 

ADA: It’s been an incredible learning experience so far. What’s really vital is that the play no longer belongs to me. Once we’re in rehearsal, it’s no longer mine anymore, it’s now- and this is the beautiful thing about theatre- it’s truly the most collaborative art form.

The trauma of war is so all encompassing and can affect every part of a human being’s life. 

CHARPO: That’s my favourite thing about theatre.

ADA: Yes! And being a collaborative art form, there’s a collective ownership over the play and over what the audience sees and relates to. And I feel really privileged to be among such incredible artists who are now taking this play and putting their own stamp on it. It makes me even more excited and humbled.

CHARPO: But initially, was it a little terrifying?

ADA: I have the utmost respect and trust in Nina and the artists that she puts together. It was a little terrifying in that, I mean, you never know how the play is going to be received. And you never know if it’s going to say what you want it to say. So I was more scared that there would be shortcomings in the writing. 

CHARPO: What are you hoping audiences take away from The Wanderers?

ADA: One of the main things is that I want audiences to come away having seen a play from the vantage point of an Afghan. Because there are so many plays in recent memory that grapple with the war in Afghanistan and Canada’s place in that war. But there hasn’t been (I don’t think) anything that’s come from an Afghan-Canadian perspective. The other thing would be how trauma can be planted like a seed from war, and how much of a ripple effect it can have on the people affected by it. It affects the immediate, as in those who come from that war torn country, but then it also ripples to anyone that those people touch. The trauma of war is so all encompassing and can affect every part of a human being’s life. 

CHARPO: I’m seeing the play on March 3 and I cannot wait. I’m really looking forward to it. So my last question is, what’s a play that you’ve either read or acted in where you thought, “why didn’t I write this?!”

ADA: That’s one of the greatest questions anyone’s ever asked me! I have to say, Nicholas Billon’s Iceland, which I had the privilege to be in. He is one of those writers who is so connected to the guttural and the truth of the characters that he writes. I’m in utter awe of his ability to write the truth so economically and yet still have the greatest impact possible. 

Mar. 1 - 23

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