Q & A with Lanna Joffrey

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Written by:
Nella Vera
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“A Thousand Splendid Suns”, a new play based on the New York Times bestselling novel by Khaled Hosseini (“Kite Runner”), focuses on the lives of two women in war-torn Afghanistan. Adapted for the stage by Ursula Rani Sarma and directed by Carey Perloff, the critically-acclaimed show made its way across the country with stops in San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle before its current run at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, in Washington, DC.

This current production stars Hend Ayoub and Mirian Katrib as two women, Mariam and Laila, who begin as adversaries but end up forging a strong and loving bond while trapped in an abusive household over many years. London-based actor Lanna Joffrey is double cast in the memorable and pivotal roles of both of their mothers. While her characters are very different, they share the strength and stoicism that women in a patriarchal society must adopt to survive. In one particularly poignant scene, the excellent Ms. Joffrey advises her daughter Mariam to “endure.”

Joffrey spoke to us about her experience with the play, the differences between the novel and the stage adaptation, and what it says about the role of women in this society.

You live in London, yet traveled to the States to be part of this production.  Tell us how you became involved in this project, how long you have been with the production and why you wanted to do this particular play.

My NY/LA agency, Avalon Artists sent me a request to put myself on tape for the show. They were auditioning for a three contract run of the show in 2018 going to The Old Globe, A.C.T. and Seattle Rep. I loved the book and “The Kite Runner” and this adaptation was fantastic, plus I love all three of the theatres producing it, so I jumped at the chance. I was over the moon when I heard that Carey Perloff cast me from my taped audition. The reaction to the show was incredible every night and I was honoured to be a part of it. So when I was sent the offer to be a part of it at Arena Stage for the fourth time, I said yes immediately. 

Had you read the book prior to being in the play? What are the biggest differences between the play and the book?

Yes, I remember being so moved by this book. Images he created in that book are still with me. My Father had read it in Farsi as well. Khaled has a distinct important voice for the MENASA community. 

The book is linear. We learn Mariam’s backstory in part 1 and then Leila’s in part 2 and then part 3 is when their paths cross and then part 4 is when Leila and Tariq leave Kabul. The play starts with the event that brings Leila and Mariam together: the bombing of Leila’s home and losing her parents. Then as their relationship strains and grows we see flashbacks of Mariam and Leila’s past. It’s a much more dynamic theatrical adaptation of the book that Khaled was very happy with. 

Did you have a chance to meet Khaled Hosseini through this process or was he involved in any way?

I was lucky enough to meet him in San Francisco at the remount of the production at A.C.T. I was not part of the show’s development or world premiere in 2017 at A.C.T. or the second run in Calgary, Canada, but I know he was involved in workshops and previews giving feedback that Ursula and Carey took on. They developed the script for over two years.

The staging in the play appears very poetic, almost musical. Can you talk about how that came about? Did the cast work with a musical stager to achieve this? 

The show has a brilliant composer and musician, David Coulter who played live with the show for the productions in San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Calgary. David created a gorgeous soundscape that breathes with the show. Also, movement director, Stephen Buescher created many of the movement sequences to go with the music. It was a wonderful collaboration.

How did the cast prepare for this show?  Was there anything different about the research or rehearsal process in creating a theatrical piece that is so topical and based on very recent current events?

There was extensive research done and shared with the cast as this story spans thirty years of Afghanistan history. They also engaged deeply with the Afghan community in San Francisco and hired a cultural consultant. We have one for Arena Stage as well, Yousuf Sultani, an Afghan actor who consulted on the Dari and certain moments in the play such as how to regard the mullah who taught Mariam as a child. Yousuf is also part of the cast, which has been great to check in with him periodically.  

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” has so much to say about how we value and treat women. Do you think American audiences can relate to this theme? 

Absolutely. I see the women in this show everywhere. When Rasheed says they must wear burqas in public, I think of the husbands that dictate what their wives wear out in public. When he lashes out at them violently when he loses his shop, I think of the men all over the world that take their frustrations of life out on their wives and daughters. When Nana speaks of being raped by her employer, I think of all the women who have felt pressure to sleep with their bosses to keep their jobs. When Fariba speaks of losing her soldier sons to the war, I think of the mothers who have lost their soldier sons to war. When Rasheed cares for and provides more for his son than his daughter, Aziza, I see all the women whose Fathers did the same to them. The play is telling the stories of women in Afghanistan, but really these stories are everywhere. 

Now that you have been a UK actor for several years, do you see any difference in the types of work that are done there versus the US?

I’d say the UK does a lot more political plays. They don’t mind being uncomfortable and watching difficult subject matters. Playwrights like Sarah Kane and Philip Ridley are produced often. My own play, “Valiant,” is a verbatim play of women’s war stories and in the US I was often told it was hard to find an audience because hearing their war stories was upsetting. I had people say it was hard to choose to sit in a theatre and hear about war for 75 minutes, but in the UK, that was a selling point. People wanted to hear women’s war stories from all over the world.

I’m also intrigued that certain American plays end up being professionally produced in London first such as Marcus Gardley’s, “The House that Will Not Stand” or Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance” or “The Mountaintop” by Katori Hall. It may be just timing or preference of the American playwright, but it surprised me that these phenomenal plays had their world premieres in London instead of the States. 

What has the audience response to the show been like?  Has it been different in DC than it was in different cities?

This production is such beautiful combination of design, direction, acting and writing that wherever we go, the audiences love it. We bow to standing ovations every night. The audience is consistently audible in their reactions to various moments of the play because they’re so engaged and invested in the story. The big difference of DC is that we’ve had some brilliant government officials attend such as the Ambassador from Afghanistan, Roya Rahamani and three supreme court justices: Samuel Alito, Sonya Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I especially freaked out hearing Ruth Bader Ginsburg came. I am a HUGE fan. 🙂 

Nella Vera


Producer, “The Backdrop” podcast

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