Home is where the ‘Heartland’ is
New Repertory show explores and overcomes cultural, political boundaries
Language, culture and philosophy blend in “Heartland,” playing at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown through Feb. 9. Written by Gabriel Jason Dean, the play follows an Afghan refugee, Nazrullah (Shawn K. Jain), who arrives in the U.S. to take care of retired professor Dr. Harold Banks (Ken Blatin). The three-person cast weaves past and present to reveal how Nazrullah met Banks’ daughter Getee (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy) and how their relationship led to the younger man’s arrival.
Nazrullah is Afghan; Banks is a white American. Getee was adopted by Banks from a Pakistani refugee camp. When Getee goes abroad to teach English in Afghanistan, she’s confronted by questions about what it means to belong to a certain culture. Though she’s technically Pakistani, she was raised as an American. In one scene, Nazrullah says to her, “You talk America, but not face of America.” Here he also pokes at the reverse of her situation, how she may not be accepted into American society because of her heritage, despite having been raised there.
These questions are continually explored through the discussion of the term “heartland.” Getee uses the word to mean the Midwest where she grew up, but in translation, to Nazrullah it becomes “motherland.” Is one’s motherland really where one was born or where one feels most at home?
The play reaches a dramatic summit when Getee finds out her father was part of a USAID project that spread propagandist books among Afghan schoolchildren, celebrating violent Islamic teachings in an attempt to foster anti-Soviet sentiment. This plotline is based on true events and a real campaign perpetuated by USAID and the CIA in the 1980s. This brings in another timely element, the discussion of propaganda and the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan.
As Getee and Harold try to understand each other across generational and cultural lines in the past, Nazrullah and Harold find common ground in the present, bonding over books and philosophical discussions. Harold is dying, and with the ultimate end in sight, the complicated barriers between him and Nazrullah dissolve in favor of a deeper human connection.
“Heartland” is a beautiful, timely and impeccably performed production. Jain and Cassidy expertly portray, in both English and Dari, the tumultuous emotions of young people finding their identities and their hearts. Blatin offers a miraculous performance of a deteriorating mind, wracked by physical sickness and emotional loss. “Heartland” is a must see for anyone who believes tolerance and humanity run deeper than political pamphlets.