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Bestselling Afghan novel 'The Kite Runner' is adapted for Broadway
Judy Woodruff: It's a tale that strikes at the heart of Afghan-American identity, a generation of people who fled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to find themselves in America, starting over, watching painfully as their former homeland is torn apart.
"The Kite Runner," based on Khaled Hosseini's bestselling novel, opened as a play on Broadway last month.
Special correspondent Jane Ferguson takes a look at the story behind the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Actor: Let's fly!
Jane Ferguson: It is a rare opportunity for Afghan stories to take center stage in the theater world and for actors with roots from the region to play characters who mean so much to them.
Actor: Hassan was the greatest kite runner I had ever seen.
Azita Ghanizada, Actress: I think having the story done right now in this specific time in history is really special.
Here on Broadway, the pinnacle of what theater is and storytelling is, never in a million years did I think I'd see a celebration of Afghan culture on Broadway. I just -- I didn't grow up thinking that. I did not imagine it could happen. Most of the stories -- about the culture are military-focused.
Jane Ferguson: Azita Ghanizada is an L.A.-based actor who has worked on various television series for years. Like her own character in the play, she came to America as a child when the Soviets took over Kabul in 1979.
Azita Ghanizada: She then made her way to Hollywood 20 years later having never even owned a piece of luggage, and somehow made it onto television post-9/11 and has never played a terrorist or a refugee. That person is me.
Jane Ferguson: Azita, who is also an activist campaigning for the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, spoke at the TED Talk spinoff, TEDx, in 2020 about life growing up here as an Afghan immigrant.
Azita Ghanizada: I worked so hard to prove my worth that I went on to win every single award at that school, from patrol of the year, to the Daughters of the American Revolution Citizenship Award.
Azita Ghanizada: That's right. This little Afghan girl won an award dedicated to preserving American patriotism.
Jane Ferguson: To her, the impact the play is having on others who may have felt like her growing up is the greatest reward for the hard work.
Azita Ghanizada: I have spoken to young girls that speak Farsi and Dari and Arabic, and something that many of the young girls -- and I'm talking teenaged aged -- do and say to me is, I have never heard my language not heard violently on television or in movies. I have never heard it not as a threat.
And they cry, because they're told that that's who they are, that's how they should feel and respond to their own language. So, for them to come and hear that and see that in a celebration and have them be outside is absolutely phenomenal.
Jane Ferguson: This is about more than cultural sensitivity. To the creative team behind the show, it's also about historical accuracy, getting the story right.
Humaira Ghilzai, Cultural Adviser and Script Consultant: When in history is this story set? Who are these people? What are their backgrounds, their education level, and where they live, whether it's Kabul and Herat, means completely different dialects of Farsi.
Jane Ferguson: Cultural adviser and script consultant Humaira Ghilzai also carefully considered everything, from the costumes to the set and language. Her attention to detail reflects a standard she knows the Afghan Americans in the audience demand.
Humaira Ghilzai: My biggest fear is the Afghan audiences.
Humaira Ghilzai: The general audience, they're, yes, they are going to be impressed. It is no problem.
But they are really my target. That is who I represent, that is who I work for, and that is my responsibility as an Afghan American.
While I was there for the previews, which is the time that we really look at audience feedback, I would go every day, stand outside, and then flag everyone I thought was Afghan, and then ask them what they thought. And I would encourage them, please don't be polite. We really -- I really want to hear from you.
Jane Ferguson: The play was planned before Kabul fell to the Taliban last August, but with this week marking the one-year the anniversary of that date, the public display of Afghan culture is all the more poignant.
The entire play is set to live performances of traditional African drums played by California-based musician Salar Nader.
Salar Nader, Musician: The first day that happened, I was awake for probably two nights in a row. Saw the fall. OK, what can I do? Get out with your instrument and play, sing and dance as much as you can, and try to share the infectious grooves of Afghanistan.
I want 1,000 people each night walking out of this theater knowing that, OK, let's be there for the Afghan people.
Jane Ferguson: Live performances, like this one of Salar in 2015 on Afghan TV, are now banned. But, he says, musicians there remain defiant and won't let this culture die.
Salar Nader: I'm in close contact with a lot of the musicians, so they still have their Facebook Messenger accounts. And I get five to 10 messages every morning and at night.
And so, online, a lot of the young performers and percussionists have been training with me. And so, although they might not be able to play it outdoors or at a wedding or within a concert, there's also a mental practice we do. And there's also hidden ways of practice that musicians and artists have done for hundreds of years.
Jane Ferguson: More than 76,000 Afghans have arrived in the U.S. since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. Among the ranks of those fleeing are writers, actors, musicians, whose art forms are banned by the Taliban.
The entertainment industry is likely to go on telling more stories of Afghanistan and the U.S.' war there in years to come. Those like Humaira hope a fresh take on that storytelling will evolve too.
Humaira Ghilzai: What I would like to see is that we don't portray Afghans and Afghanistan in the same monolithic way we have before in a lot of the movies that were done prior to last year.
There was always Afghan women cowering in a corner. Somebody was screaming at them. Then there would be the Taliban running around with a big turban.
So I would love to see more diversity in thinking and more nuance in the storytelling.
Actor: Red, blue, and yellow kites fly and spun past each other.
Jane Ferguson: There has never been a better time for industry leaders to do that, as the community of Afghan creatives in America grows rapidly.
Salar Nader: We have been here now for 40 years. And we are here. And we are ready to actually use our voice. So it's just a matter of a little bit of investigating to see who's here, who's available.
Jane Ferguson: Azita looks forward to seeing their talents blossom here.
Azita Ghanizada: We are storytellers, and we're poets and we're musicians. I mean, that's the beginning of culture, really.
And so all of that history that lives inside of us, we just have to be willing to forge our own path, whether it's being an actor, whether it's producing, whether it's writing, whether it's joining programming.
Jane Ferguson: Tough as the business is, she is confident Afghans will thrive.
Azita Ghanizada: You know, we're war refugees. We started over with two suitcases and no money and no community and no support system.
Those people are really strong, and they have been through a lot. They can handle Hollywood.
Jane Ferguson: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in New York.