Charles Randolph-Wright, Resident Playwright

The Arena Stage’s resident playwright talks about success, Afghanistan and being a man of many projects.

By Anne Elsea

Charles Randolph-Wright is a busy man with an almost overwhelming work life. He splits his time between three different cities and between many job titles.

During any given week he may be directing a Broadway play in New York City, directing a TV commercial in Los Angeles or writing his latest play at Arena Stage in D.C. Even reading his biography can leave you feeling tired: Directed a Broadway production of “Motown: The Musical”, worked on Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ruined”, acted in the original cast of “Dreamgirls” and even directed a Nike commercial with soccer star Ronaldinho.

Photo courtesy of Charles Randolph-Wright

Does he mind being so busy? Not really.

“I have many friends who do the same thing,” Randolph-Wright says. “You learn how to focus and for me it’s far more exciting to do several things so I don’t obsess too much on one thing.”

Randolph-Wright is currently a resident playwright at Arena Stage where he spends time working with the theater’s artistic director Molly Smith to develop story ideas and write plays. His current focus is “Love in Afghanistan”, which had its world premier on Oct. 3. The play is unique for him because he has never been to Afghanistan and he didn’t know much about the culture before researching for the play.

“I read a story about Afghanistan that floored me. As I started the exploration, different people out of the blue came to be that helped me find out [about Afghan culture],” Randolph-Wright says.

He spends a lot of time learning more about the Afghan practice of Bacha Posh, where families without sons will dress their young daughter as a boy to receive the privilege and entitlement that they cannot get as a girl in their culture.

“It was fascinating to me how that operates. It’s a cultural part of that society that stunned me and I thought I want to tell that story somehow,” Randolph-Wright says. “I have no idea what it’s like to live in that world.”

It was that curiosity that led him to create the story of Duke and Roya, two people who find love in the middle of war-torn Afghanistan. The play is different from most of the work he has done, but he feels that it fits in with his beliefs as a theater artist.

“How can you enter a world that you’ve never been in? That is what theater is about,” Randolph-Wright says with conviction.

Smith, who first invited Randolph-Wright to direct at Arena in 1998, thinks of Randolph-Wright as a director and playwright that can appeal to the entire group of 200,000 people who see Arena shows each year.

“He is wildly inventive in the rehearsal hall, very smart as a writer, a true renaissance man,” Smith says. “Our audiences love him. He is very personable and people get very excited when he comes.”

While there are two other cities that fight for his creative attention, D.C. speaks to Randolph-Wright because of the influence his entertainment could have on the important people in the audience.

“In this time when we are so divided in this country art is what brings us together,” Randolph-Wright says. “Especially in a city where you have people that make laws and deal with the world if you do something that can affect them, how incredible is that opportunity?”

(October 2013)