Merrimack Repertory Theatre Blog



The following post contains excerpts of an interview with playwright Seth Rozin about his play Two Jews Walk Into A War…, playing March 17-April 10 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.

Q – Two Jews Walk into a War… is based on true events and your characters even retain nearly identical names to their real life counterparts. To what extent did the non-fictional situations of the last two Jews in Kabul guide your writing of the play?

Seth Rozin

A – As with most of my plays, I use factual events, situations and characters as a launching pad to explore some larger theme or answer a larger question. The original New York Times article I read – about Zebulon Semantov and Isaak Levi, the last two Jews in Afghanistan — immediately suggested an existential comedy to me (I learned a bit later that the very same article had triggered the very same impulse in two other playwrights!). But after doing a bit of follow-up research and reading about the two other plays (which had limited success, perhaps because they adhered too closely to real life) I set out on a decidedly unfactual direction. So, at the top of the play, the circumstances of Zeblyan and Ishaq are essentially true to life. But the play quickly veres off into a story that is wholly invented.

Q – What kind of research or other preparations did you do before or during your writing of the play?

A – I read a handful of articles and watched a couple of short documentaries about Zebulon Semantov, who is still living in Kabul. But the biggest part of my research involved reading (most of) the Torah, which, having grown up in a singularly non-religious family (my grandparents on both sides were atheists) I had managed to never read. That was an arduous, if fascinating labor. I was particularly interested in Leviticus, the book that outlines the laws that still govern most of our Judeo-Christian morality in the present day. In the midst of my immersion in The Torah, while writing an early draft of the play, I had occasion to watch the Republican YouTube debate on CNN, which ended up spurring on one critical moment in the script. A young man from a Southern state, sporting a rifle over his shoulder, held up the Bible in his video question and asked all of the candidates if they believed in every word. Appropriately, each of the candidates responded by saying no; that some of what is in the Bible is to be understood as literal, other parts metaphorical and still others allegorical. But the obvious follow-up question was not asked: So who decides which parts are interpreted which ways? And why do we accept certain interpretations, when there is no certainty of the intent?

Q – What do you see as the value of comedy in exploring political issues in theater? In a way, Two Jews centers around a complex debate about the nature of faith. Can you talk about the questions you set out to ask about faith in writing this play, and what you discovered as you wrote?

A – While it wasn’t actually the first impulse for writing Two Jews, I quickly realized that the reason I was so drawn to this story was to ask a question that has always gnawed at me: Why are so many people, for whom life is so perpetually difficult, whose families have suffered for generations, often among the most devout believers in a higher power? I had never understood why such people didn’t give up on their beliefs in the face of so many ongoing challenges. To me, there has never been clearer evidence that there isn’t a higher power than the fact that so many people and peoples around the world have suffered for so long. But writing Two Jews helped to answer that question for me.

Q – After the premiere of Two Jews at Florida Stage last fall, two audience members sent the program to their son who was working for the US Airforce in Kabul and he corresponded with and eventually met Zabolon Semantov. What did you think when you heard about this meeting? Did it change how you think about the play? When you started writing this play, did you anticipate such powerful responses?

A – There is simply no more gratifying reward for me as an artist than to know that my work has made some kind of real difference in the world. When I got the email from Lt. Col. Robert Engell, I was surprised and thrilled that someone half-way around the world would have even heard about Two Jews, let alone be moved to act on it. I have remained in touch with him and he tells me that there is still a possibility that he and other members of the Armed Forces might be able to help Semantov rebuild his synagogue in Kabul. I would trade in every good review and every royalty check to know that the play might have played a small role in improving someone’s life.

Q – Two Jews deals with the issues and obstacles involved with religious and cultural expression. One might argue that such obstacles are a common thread uniting all subaltern people and oppressed groups. Do you see resonance between the history of the Jews and the turmoil in Afghanistan? Were you aiming to depict this resonance or get at something about it in writing this play?

A – Honestly, I wasn’t thinking that broadly or deeply when I started writing Two Jews. What began as a very funny, but limited idea blossomed into something that I hope does more than entertain. I’m hoping that audiences of all religious and non-religious convictions alike will find something compelling about the story of Zeblyan and Ishaq. Their big questions about why and how we believe what we do are as fundamental as any other inquiry into our nature as human beings. I know, for myself, that I did not set out to write a play that affirmed the importance of faith; and yet here it is. There is a wonderful moment in writing a play, if you’re lucky, when you know your characters so well that they start telling you what they want to say, instead of the reverse. I’ve learned a lot from Ishaq and Zeblyan.

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