In the eighties, Houshang Touzie was working at a parking lot on West Forty-fourth Street, a new immigrant from Iran. “I don’t want to say I escaped, because I took a plane,” he said recently. “But everybody was escaping.” A few years before Touzie left, a director in Iran had seen him, then sixteen, playing ping-pong at a youth center and asked, “Would you like to do theatre?” But the arts, along with Touzie’s burgeoning stage career, were wiped out by the Iranian Revolution. “We had a beautiful country under Shah,” he said. “Shah was called a dictator, but he was a pussycat. My father was more dictator than Shah, honest to God. Then religious hard-liners came to power and everything was changed. Lots of killing. Lots of imprisonment. It was chaos.” In America, his brother, a supervisor at the parking service, offered to help him advance in the company, but Touzie was determined to act. He moved to Hollywood and was cast in an episode of “The A-Team,” as a guy who gets punched out by Mr. T. “Now, years later, my brother’s not working anymore, but I’m on Broadway!” he said, and laughed.
Specifically, Touzie is back on West Forty-fourth Street, in a stage production of “The Kite Runner,” Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel. The story follows an Afghan boy named Amir, who flees with his father amid the Soviet invasion and returns decades later to rescue the son of his childhood friend Hassan. It’s a refugee’s tale, told with Dickensian twists, and Touzie, who plays General Taheri, a displaced Afghan working at a flea market in San Jose, sees echoes of his own life onstage. Before the final dress rehearsal, he sat in a greenroom at the Hayes Theatre with a group of fellow cast members whose lives also chimed with the story.
Faran Tahir, who plays Amir’s father, Baba, was born in California and grew up in Pakistan. “We have been in theatre for almost a hundred years—my grandfather, my grandmother, my parents, me,” he said. (His grandfather Imtiaz Ali Taj wrote the Urdu play “Anarkali.”) “My coming to the U.S. has a lot to do with the time in which this play is set.” This was 1980, during the Soviet-Afghan War, and arms were streaming through Pakistan. Tahir’s father was vocally opposed to Pakistan’s dictatorship, he said, “so I was being rounded up quite often by the police and beaten up as a message.” Because Tahir had a U.S. passport, he was sent, at seventeen, to live with a family friend in Maryland. He got a graduate degree in acting at Harvard, specializing in the classics. “When the lights go on, people forget sometimes what color you are,” he said. His credits include a role in “Iron Man,” as a terrorist who kidnaps Tony Stark. (Terrorist roles—the Middle Eastern actor’s bane.)
Eric Sirakian, who plays both Hassan and Hassan’s child—he’s in his twenties but can pull off eleven—was born in Massachusetts to Armenian-doctor parents; his mother had left Iran during the Revolution. He trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London, and played Viola at Shakespeare’s Globe. Sirakian recalled, “I had a conversation not unlike the one that Amir has with his Baba in Act II, where Amir says, ‘I want to be a writer,’ and his dad says, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to do something real ?’ ” He sat beside Azita Ghanizada, who plays Amir’s wife, Soraya. “I’m from Afghanistan. My family’s Kabulese,” she said. “In fact, we probably lived in the same shahr that much of this book takes place in, the Shahr-e Naw. We were asylum seekers when the Soviets invaded. I was a baby.” Her family settled in Vienna, Virginia, where she won an award from the Daughters of the American Revolution in middle school. “I learned English from Peter Jennings, Mary Hart, and Joan Collins, and that sums me up,” she said. Although her father had been in a Beatles cover band in Afghanistan, he disapproved of her acting ambitions, much as Soraya’s father, General Taheri, frowns upon his daughter’s choices. “My life parallels so much of the play, it’s almost absurd,” Ghanizada said.
They all felt that way. “For example, my mom is Shia, my father is Sunni,” Tahir said. “That’s a huge thing in the book, although in my house there has never been a single fight based on Sunni and Shia. The only fights that we have are what food we should make that night.” Sirakian pulled up a poem on his phone, “Midsummer,” by Louise Glück, and read aloud the last few lines, which he felt encapsulated what “The Kite Runner” means to immigrants: “You will leave the village where you were born / and in another country you’ll become very rich, very powerful, / but always you will mourn something you left behind, even though / you can’t say what it was, / and eventually you will return to seek it.”
The group sighed. “So true,” Touzie said. “So true.” ♦