Audiences at LCT's now-in-rehearsal production of J. T. Rogers' Blood and Gifts might be surprised at just how entertaining the work is, given its primary subject: war in Afghanistan during the 1980s. According to the playwright, however, with whom I lunched the other day at Lincoln Center's David Rubenstein Atrium, humor should be expected. "Other than O'Neill," Rogers said, "what other American writes a play without jokes? There's usually only a knife-thin edge between what is horrible and what is hilarious."
Although the drama's humor derives from multiple sources, one of the liveliest involves American pop culture, and the Afghan characters' knowledge of it. Rogers explains this theme with reference to his own life. "In the 1978-79 school year, when I was 9, I lived in a rural village in Malaysia. My father" - a political scientist and professor - "was on sabbatical." The playwright added: "One of my friends in the village had an 8-track-tape player with a recording of 'Hotel California.' We listened to it over and over, with such rapture. Back then, that kind of thing was so hard to get." Further: "There was such yearning about those products, and the aspirations they symbolized."
A peripatetic childhood helped stoke Rogers' interest in global issues, which has turned up in acclaimed plays like "The Overwhelming," about Rwanda, and "Madagascar," set in Rome. His undergraduate study, at the school then known as the North Carolina School of the Arts, honed his interest in theater. (He knocked about for a while as an actor, before deciding that the other side of the footlights suited him better.)
But even the most cosmopolitan of American dramatists tends eventually to turn his or her gaze inward. "That's the tendency," Rogers concurred, "yet if you asked me to write a play about me, I'd have writer's block for the rest of my life." This predilection stems not just from the fact that Rogers, when researching a subject, gets so caught up in it that he's eager to share it with people. The tendency is also technical.
"I'm interested in a multiplicity of points of view. Big subjects seem to lend themselves better to that approach than to something more domestic, though of course even the smallest of subjects can be approached from several angles."
Part of what propelled him with Blood and Gifts, which was done first in 20-minute form at the Tricycle Theatre, in London, then in full-length at London's National, and now at LCT, who commissioned the full-length version, is the point of view of the mujahideen. The mujahideen are the Islam-inspired fighters whom the U.S. initially supported in their struggle against the Soviets (Blood and Gifts focuses on this conflict) and then grew later to oppose.
"My aim is for everyone's point of view in the play to be 100 percent defensible," Rogers said, "whether it's that of the Soviets, the Americans, or various Afghan characters. In the post 9/11 age, America has gotten away from desire to understand an enemy deeply in order to better fight it; the war on terrorism hasn't exactly been a model of Realpolitik."
Making all sides comprehensible also has a storytelling aspect for Rogers. "If you can't understand a particular character's perspective then you're less likely to care what happens to him throughout the course of a narrative." He added: "I don't write plays to change the world. But one thing that playwrights can do is present as empathetic something--or some one--who on paper would seem alien, even hostile, to an audience. I'm interested in expanding our collective pool of empathy outward."
Rogers future projects include a screenplay he has written about the culture of the Yakuza - traditional organized crime members in Japan - that is based on the memoir "Tokyo Vice" by Jake Adelstein. For West End producers, Rogers is writing the English language version of "A Good Death," a much heralded new Dutch play about a family grappling with euthanasia.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.