Reading Resolution: “Homebody/Kabul” by Tony Kushner

21. A novel by a famous author, other than the one(s) they are best known for: Homebody/Kabul by Tony Kushner

List Progress: 9/30

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika, are towering classics of modern theater for a reason. Premiering in 1991, this fantastical and dense saga about the AIDS epidemic was written with the emotion and rawness of someone living in the middle of it. Angels in America uses the individual lives and dramas of specific men and women to tell sweeping, sometimes-cosmic stories about hope, love, humanity, and faith. The pair of three-hour plays can seem dense and unapproachable, but they never lose the connection to real characters that keep the audience engaged.

The 1998 play Homebody/Kabul could only be written by someone like Tony Kushner. Not only because of the rich, dense language it uses…but because only someone with the success of Angels in America behind him would be able to get away with something like this without an editor reining them in.

The play Homebody/Kabul starts off with a 21 page monologue. A British woman, entranced by an outdated travel guide to the city of Kabul, speaks about her dissatisfactions, how she has come to dream of “exotic” places like Afghanistan, and how her own life feels thin and ephemeral through a haze of petty squabbles and antidepressants. She is only known as Homebody and she speaks like she has eaten a thesaurus, but it is an engaging start.

In the second half, her husband Milton and adult daughter Priscilla are actually in Kabul, but to pick up her body. Wandering around Kabul without a burqa in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and right after an American bombing, she is literally torn apart, and her death is seen as an elaborate suicide rather than an accident…Unless she’s not really dead at all, but has converted to Islam and married a Muslim man in secret. Milton and Priscilla are left to hack through the tangled web Homebody has left behind, a morass of personal, historical, and globally political cross-purposes. That is interesting in some ways, but Kushner loses the personal far too quickly. Each character, especially many of the Afghani characters, feel like they have one trait and one trait only. Perhaps a strong cast could bring life and grounding into the work, but as written, it feels more like an aesop.

Seeing it instead of reading it would also present its own challenges, as large chunks of the script are spoken in Pastun, Dari and French. Translations are presented in side-notes, but do not appear to be intended for performance. There is something to be said for making American audiences listen to other languages and feel like they are being othered, and I reserve full judgement as I don’t know how it would come across in performance. But taking figures that already feel thin, and then leaving them untranslated, is a lot of distance to put between the audience and the characters.

Homebody/Kabul is bold and experimental and I’m glad that Kushner was still pushing boundaries after the success of Angels. But it is the nature of experiments to sometimes fail, and I think this one stumbles where other works of his have soared.

Would I Recommend It: No.

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