Conversations is a discussion series featuring Los Angeles theatre artists who are currently collaborating on a production. Today’s conversation is between the playwright and the director of All American Girl, Wendy Graf and Anita Khanzadian.
Wendy Graf: After the Boston Marathon bombing [in 2013], I became fascinated with the wife of Tamerlan [Tsarnaev]. They kept having magazine articles about her, and here she was in traditional dress, and the aunt, the parents, and the school mates were all saying, “She was just a normal, all-American girl!” And that was the thing that just piqued my imagination. So I tried to find out everything I could about her, this particular girl, and nothing — if you notice — was ever very much written about it or reported about it, even all the way up through the trial.
We have a catchphrase in our house for a type of material… and we call it the, “How did we get here from there, Mr. Shepard?”-type-of-material, which is from Steven Sondheim’s song, “Merrily We Roll Along.” This was kind of the focus of the play for me… I wanted to try to figure out, “How did that girl get here from there?” How did she get from being an “All-American girl” to an extremist?
This, added to the climate of so many kids joining extremist groups now… and I’ve always been interested in the choices that people make from moment to moment that determine who they are. Was this one thing? Was this a number of things? And I studied a lot of extremists and how they got here from there.
… It was a very, very lengthy development process; we had four developmental workshops on it. I knew I wanted Anita [Khanzadian] to direct it, because not only is she the premier director of one-person shows (I had worked with her before) but I knew that she would bring humanity to the character and not make this a political story… but a story of humanity.
Anita, what attracted you to doing the show? Why did you say yes?
Anita Khanzadian: Well, you know, Wendy, your early version of the script, I said “no.” (laughing)
I said, “Who is this girl?” I said, “I can’t get next to her. I can’t get next to this girl.” I think that was over a year ago, if not more, and you did work on the script, and you sent me revisions. You had a workshop of it that taught you a lot about it, and I got to read it again. And although it still scared the hell out of me, I got more interested…. because…. (pause) I know that we, as a people, we tend to make monsters out of people who do awful things, well the truth is… people do awful things. They do monstrous things, but they are still people. So I had to get rid of my own prejudices and my own fears, I have to say, to get next to this girl. And what we find out is that she is an all-American girl. Definitely. And she becomes radicalized, for a number of reasons — all of which I do not understand. I don’t think Wendy does, either. But we are exploring it… we’re trying to find out… what happens —
Graf: How do we get here from there!
Khanzadian: Yes. And I don’t even think that we’re looking for answers. We’re actually asking more questions.
Graf: We are, right! And that’s what we said, we have no agenda —
Graf: —for what we want the audience to take away, except to make their own decisions as to the questions of the play. We want them to see the truth of the behavior, and something about their own humanity on the stage. Perhaps even see some pieces of themselves reflected in it and understand it, not necessarily condone it.
And one of the things that I think was really fun for us through this whole rehearsal process was the… the dawning of the realization for all of us — actresses, Anita, myself, that we started to ask ourselves… How complicit is society? And family? How complicit are we in possibly creating these people?
Khanzadian: I don’t know. All I know is that all of the things that are happening currently — politically, socially…
Khanzadian: Racially… the horrible things that happened in Charleston, again brings us back to… What makes this young man… who blew away all those people in the church? That you could be that given to an ideology that is so askew, so difficult to understand. And I guess it does have to do with hate. Hate… hate can cause people to do really awful things.
Graf: It started to open up for us. What we found so exciting… was there anything in this girl’s background that could have predicted this? How responsible is religion? How responsible are these orthodoxies that talk about… even the word “war” is used so much. We discovered… “war on sin!” “war on poverty!”
Khanzadian: “Soldiers… onward Christian soldier!” (laughs)
Graf: Right, right! Is there something inherent in our religion, in our politics, in our nationalism that contributes to this? I don’t know. I don’t have the answer, and I don’t want to give the answer. When I write a play, I only want to ask questions, and I want… the audience to go across the street afterwards and have a glass of wine and argue it out.