Role Playing: Kareem Bandealy tapped roots, hit books to form warlord in ‘Blood and Gifts’
Interview: In J.T. Rogers’ “Blood and Gifts,” actor born in Pakistan dons robes and outlook of an Afghan in struggle against Russian invaders. At TimeLine Theatre through July 28.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Our guy – the American – in J.T. Rogers’ play “Blood and Gifts,” about the United States’ clandestine effort to blunt the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, is a CIA agent. We see the unfolding events through his eyes. But the character who elicits our sympathy and commands our imagination is an Afghan warlord called Abdullah Khan. He is made credible flesh and elusive spirit at TimeLine Theatre in a riveting performance by Kareem Bandealy, who says his portrait reflects both his own cultural heritage and the desperation that drives this unpredictable warrior.
“I am from Pakistan, so I’ve long been familiar with that culture,” says Bandealy, whose family moved to the U.S. when he was 2 years old. “My mother’s side of the family is filled with extreme alpha type males, guys with unnecessarily loud voices who are constantly beating their chests. I’m lucky that I have a lot of these touchstones to refer to. But at the heart of this play are circumstances that J.T. Rogers makes very clear. Abdullah Khan is a man acting out of desperation.”
The gist of “Blood and Gifts” is that the CIA agent, outwardly working through official Pakistani channels, arranges a secret meeting with Abdullah Khan and offers to provide the Afghan resistance large amounts of cash, and eventually weapons, in exchange for information about Soviet military operations. As the Russians escalate their force, in both manpower and technology, the CIA agent and Abdullah both push for similar escalation on the American side. The Afghan even travels to Washington to make a direct appeal to Congress for greater assistance, including more sophisticated weapons.
But in the end, as the Russians are in full withdrawal, a twist of fate spins the alliance between CIA agent and Afghan – a bond forged of mutual trust and respect – out of orbit. As if the earth had split open, the topography of friendship is altered forever, and that part of the world, indeed the world generally, suddenly takes on a new and far darker aspect.
“It’s a tricky play, there was so much information to process,” says Bandealy, a graduate of the University of Central Florida who came to Chicago in 2002, lured by its theater scene. “But one of the great things about TimeLine is the depth of its dramaturgy. We had a Skype session with Tim McGirk of Time magazine, who had interviewed Afghan warlords. He told us about the rather casual way the mujahedin (“holy warriors” ) operated. They were drawn from the villages. They would do their work, then proceed toward their targets, maybe smoke some hash, then organize an attack. Time was never of the essence.”
The cast also had required reading, books like Steve Coll’s “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA” and Tamim Ansary’s “Games Without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan.” From this backgrounding, Bandealy fashioned his characterization of Abdullah Khan, a man at once proud and perceptive, gracious and willful.
“A khan gains power not by subjecting, but by giving, by proving to be generous,” says the actor. “Being a good host means everything. Whenever Abdullah receives Jim (the CIA agent, played by Timothy Edward Kane), he always offers tea. It’s a major thing, tea. Abdullah is a warlord not by choice. It’s something he fell into as a respected elder.
“He has a deep sense of humility. He’s constantly talking about his own insignificance. He also observes that all we have is our word and our faith, and that one shouldn’t question the good or evil handed down from God. He’s a man acting out of genuine idealism.”
The crucial rapport between Abdullah Khan and the CIA agent is forged in their first meeting as they cautiously take each other’s measure. The agent has brought serious cash; the Afghan, tea.
“I love doing that first scene,” says Bandealy. “I like that we sit, take our time with it. There is so much communication, not only in lines but between the lines. It’s a delicate moment. Neither side wants to blow this. There’s an intricate dance going on between the two men, each wanting to be assertive and state his case but also taking care not to push too far. J.T. (the playwright) has written it so Abdullah doesn’t say much. It’s Saeed (a brash young Afghan soldier, played by Behzad Dabu) who does most of the talking. Saeed is the enforcer – good cop, bad cop. There’s always a game in play.”
Yet getting the tension right in that first encounter meant working around an ironic obstacle: the fondness of the two actors for each other. Director Nick Bowling had to remind the actors this wasn’t tea on the Magnificent Mile.
“I really like Tim Kane. We like each other,” says Bandealy. “And that came through as Abdullah and Jim (the agent) talk about kids and family in a very respectful, formal way. But Nick pointed out that the situation is dangerous, and that neither one of us really knows what to expect. Someone could be killed at any moment. The same questions are in both men’s mind: How can I trust him, what can I give, what should I withhold?”
Bandealy credits the director with hammering at essential points of interpretation until they matched his vision. “Nick is uncompromising. He reminds me of Charlie Newell (Court Theatre’s artistic director) in the sense of being focused on a goal. A lot of times, through discussion, you reach a middle ground where everybody seems to be happy – but the effect can be watered down. Nick sets a goal and he’s unrelenting in reaching it. And he’s got a great sense of space. Anybody who can stage 14 human beings in a space that small, and convey meaning, is amazing.”
The scene that posed the greatest challenge to Bandealy, and delivered some of the greatest rewards, is the Afghan warlord’s personal appearance in Washington, where he meets with Congressmen holding the purse strings of support and has a personal encounter with the most influential of them.
“It’s got to be disorienting for this man from so different a culture. And as an actor, I suddenly feel as if I’m not in control, either. I always sense a younger physicality coming out, suggestive of someone who doesn’t feel in charge.
“Abdullah is used to understanding how things work, being the one who sets the terms. In America, that’s turned on its head. It provides an amazing obstacle for him. I love it for that. If he can weather this, he has won. I don’t know if he’s ever worn a suit in his life. We talked about that. The more he feels he’s on his heels rather than his toes, the more compelling it is. It’s sink or swim.”
Kareem Bandealy will play the role of Abdullah Khan through June 9. Anish Jethmalani, who currently portrays a Pakistani intelligence officer in the production, will switch to the part of Abdullah Khan for the remainder of the run through July 28.
- Review of “Blood and Gifts”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
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