Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Kite Runner
National Tour
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Ramzi Khalaf and Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
"I became what I am today at the age of twelve ... I remember the precise moment ... it's wrong what they say about the past, about how you can bury it ... [b]ecause the past claws its way out."

And so near three decades later, on the west coast of a continent an ocean and a lifetime away from his now-destroyed homeland, an Afghan American in Fremont, California, begins to share vivid scenes from his memory bank–scenes recalling happier times in a country now marred forever by horrific wars, recalling a narrow escape from sure death, recalling a new homeland full of wonder, and most of all, recalling one act as a child that has since haunted him and filled him with unrequited guilt.

San Jose State University's Hammer Theatre in conjunction with EnActe Arts initiates the Broadway national tour of Matthew Spangler's stage adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel, The Kite Runner. The fourteen-city tour begins in the space where the now-defunct San Jose Repertory Company produced the world premiere in 2009 of this beautifully moving play about one man's harrowing journey across the world to find forgiveness and thus to discover how he "can be good again."

Amir's memories begin as a young boy in 1973 playing in the streets of Kabul with his constant boyhood companion Hassan. The two were nursed as babies by the same woman, took their first steps together, and still are rarely apart–that is until at night Amir goes to bed in his father's huge mansion and Hassan goes to the shack in the back. Amir is a member of Afghanistan's ruling and upper Pashtun class and a Sunni Muslim; Hassan is a member of the Hazara class, defeated in the 19th century and now a part of the Shi'a Muslims detested by most Pashtuns. In Amir's family, Hassan and his father Ali are treated almost like family by Amir's father, Baba, even though they are his servants. But Amir says repeatedly of the boy who worships him and will do anything to please him, "I never thought of Hassan as my friend; history isn't easy to overcome. Neither is religion."

These two are in fact inseparable on a day-to-day basis and are at their best when competing in the Afghans' favorite sport of kite flying. As a twelve-year-old in 1975, Amir's goal is to win Kabul's major kite tournament and finally to prove to his father that the son who likes to read and write stories (instead of playing his father's much-preferred soccer) is worthy of the father's love and attention. It is during this tournament that a confrontation with Amir and Hassan's worst enemy, a bullying Assef, changes everything for the two boys and their fathers.

Ramzi Khalaf proves his mettle as an adult actor undertaking the playwright's difficult assignment of not only playing a child at age ten and twelve, and later a teen growing into his twenties and finally late thirties, but, as the story's narrator, his Amir never leaves the stage during the two-hour, thirty-minute (plus intermission) production. For nearly a quarter of the time, he speaks to the audience as the storyteller he is, introducing the thirty-plus scenes, filling in time gaps, explaining Afghan history and culture, and confessing his own unexpressed-to-others thoughts, fears and regrets. In addition, the narrator then seamlessly merges into the next scene, immediately embodying the appropriate age, demeanor, and emotional state of Amir at that point in time. Through it all, Ramzi Khalaf never misses a beat and always impresses with his ability to convincingly convey Amir's boyhood joys and playfulness as well as his mounting self-doubts, bone-chilling fears, and almost crippling vulnerabilities.

Surrounding the centrality of Ramzi Khalaf's role as Amir is an equally impressive cast of principle, multi-role, and ensemble actors. Haythem Noor is particularly noteworthy as Amir's father Baba, a man who undergoes a great transformation from the highly important, outspoken, demanding aristocrat in Kabul's mid-seventies era to a proud, stalwart survivor in the 1990s United States where he works twelve-hour days as a gas station attendant and flea-market entrepreneur. With Amir, the Kabul-based Baba is often fierce and near unforgiving in his high expectations while at the same time showing genuine tenderness to the servant boy, Hassan. The now aging and ailing Baba is proof of Ramzi Khalaf's own acting prowess as Baba mellows and easily melts our hearts in the way he remains a proud Afghan but also is not afraid to openly show love for his son.

Shahzeb Zahid Hussain shines as the seemingly always happy and grateful companion, Hassan, whose bravery and skills with a slingshot are always more than ready to protect his friend, Amir, from the taunts, threats, and possible thrashings by the bully, Assef, known with reason on the streets as "the ear eater." Assef's fisted snarls on the streets give way to oily polite compliments when around adults like Baba, helping solidify our disgust and dislike of Wiley Naman Strasser's Assef but also our admiration of the actor's believable depictions of the Janus-faced villain.

Other standouts in the cast include Hassan Nazari-Robati as Hassan's caring, heads-up proud father Ali, who is also Baba's servant/companion of forty years and carries a secret that would crush the spirits of most others. Jonathan Shaboo is Baba's financial advisor and friend in Kabul, Rahim Khan, who sees early on the potential of Amir as a future writer when Baba does not and who many years later provides to Amir a path for his much-needed redemption.

In California, Awesta Zarif's confident and coy Soraya locks eyes with a shy and quickly snookered Amir, leading to one of the play's cutest scenes as the two finally break the ice and admit a mutual attraction. Watching intently from the sidelines is Soraya's father and stern, former Afghan general Taheri (James Rana), who still wears his dignity with head held high in tie and suit as he oversees his stand at the weekly flea market in Fremont.

Intermingled in the play's many scenes between the bustling, busy streets of mid-seventies Kabul and the baseball, Pac-Mac, Duran Duran loving 1980s of the U.S. are graphically played scenes of the horrors of a Russian invasion, an escape to Pakistan in a suffocating oil truck, and later, deadly encounters with the blood-thirsty Taliban. But also generously sprinkled throughout Spangler's script and directed with skill and sensitivity by Giles Croft are many authentic flavorings of Afghan customs and heritage–most/all of which are now forbidden on the threat of death in the Taliban-controlled state. The director's staged reenactments of Kabul's sky-filling kite tournament, of the solemn but joyful traditional nikah marriage ceremony, and of the high-stepping, circling national dance called Attan are all wonderfully showcased homages to honored traditions.

The pride in culture extends especially to the presence of Afghan music that accompanies most of the scenes. Along with the continual stage presence of Salar Nader, who pairs the actions and emotions of scenes with the drum rhythms and beats of the traditional tabla, ensemble members periodically appear to provide moving, often haunting music and sound effects with such instruments as metallic singing bowls and twirling, wooden schwirrbogen, with the majority of all the show's music composed by Jonathan Girling.

Against the background of a tall, multi-shaped fence that serves as skylines of both Kabul and San Francisco as well as the fences of borders and internment, William Simpson fills in with projections that provide cultural, historical event, and location/era context, often also on two large kites that swoop in to serve as screens. The simple but effective scenic design as well as the multi-era, multi-culture appropriate costumes are the creations of Barney George. The lighting designed by Charles Balfour plays a major role in painting scenes sometimes full of fun and festivity and at other times foaming with fear and fright.

Thirteen cities across the country are fortunate to host the subsequent stops of the touring The Kite Runner between now and June 30, 2024. If this sold-out viewing at San Jose's Hammer Theatre is any indication, patrons from Tempe to D.C. should rush now to grab tickets for a show that is sure to win fans from coast to coast.

The Kite Runner runs through April 7, 2024, at the Hammer Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose CA. For information on the tour, visit closes its sold-out, too-short run in