“The Kite Runner” Flies Again at the Hammer Theatre, 15 Years Later

by | Mar 22, 2024 | Awards and Achievements, Featured

The Broadway tour of Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” as adapted by SJSU Performance Studies Professor Matthew Spangler, returns to the Hammer Theatre this April. Photo of the 2009 premiere by Kevin Berne.

This April, “The Kite Runner” returns to Hammer Theatre for the first time since 2009. The Broadway touring production of Khaled Hosseini’s award-winning 2003 novel of the same name was originally adapted as a staged reading by San José State Performance Studies Professor Matthew Spangler in 2007 before making its world premiere at what was then the San José Repertory Theatre two years later.

“It’s a terrific honor to see the play back in San José nearly two decades after its first performances, in 2007 at SJSU and 2009 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre,” says Spangler. “After productions on Broadway, in London’s West End, the Dubai Opera House, and at many other theatres throughout the world, it’s incredible to see ‘The Kite Runner’ play coming home.” 

The play, which centers on the friendship between Amir and his servant Hassan, spans continents, cultures, languages and decades. Their friendship is torn apart following an incident that occurs during a kite flying tournament in Afghanistan shortly before Amir and his family immigrates to America. Spangler’s theatrical adaptation was itself a process, says cultural producer and  dialect coach Humaira Ghilzai, ’90 International Business, who was first brought onto the production as a cultural advisor in 2008.

“If you Google ‘Afghanistan,’ 90% of the books that will come up are about the war, usually written by a journalist,” says Ghilzai, who remains creatively attached to the play as a consultant for the U.S., U.K. and Ireland national  tours. “There are only a couple of sociological studies of Afghanistan that really dive into its culture. I’m always trying to unveil the Afghan culture — both in the context of how people live, and what people’s priorities are. There is so much beauty in the Afghan culture that is overlooked.”

Humaira Ghilzai

Humaira Ghilzai has played a pivotal role on multiple productions of “The Kite Runner” since 2008. Photo courtesy of Humaira Ghilzai.

Ghilzai’s origin story runs parallel both to the author Hosseini’s and to his character Amir’s — born in Afghanistan, she immigrated to the United States in the late 1970s and was raised in the Bay Area. She transferred to San José State to study international business before launching a successful career as a marketer for Sun Microsystems and Oracle. When the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 sent a shockwave across the U.S., prompting the invasion of Afghanistan, Ghilzai shifted her efforts to supporting women and children in her home country.

In 2002, she co-founded the Afghan Friends Network, a charitable organization that provides education and infrastructure development assistance to communities in Afghanistan. A few years later, she established Hayward as a sister city to Ghazni, making it the third Afghan sister city with the U.S. When she first read “The Kite Runner,” she was startled to recognize Hosseini, the brother of her childhood friend, as the author.

In 2008, Hosseini reached out to see if she’d be willing to collaborate with Spangler on “The Kite Runner” at the San José Repertory Theatre, across the street from her alma mater. Thus began a creative partnership that benefited the actors, crew, playwright and university, while launching a new phase in Ghilzai’s career as a theater professional and cultural producer. Her contributions to the San José Repertory show led to partnerships with dozens of directors, playwrights, screenwriters, authors, theaters and companies producing work related to or about Afghan culture.

She couldn’t have predicted that, more than a decade later in 2021 while American troops were withdrawn from Kabul, she’d still be an essential part of the Broadway crew.

“In 2009, it was exciting to work on ‘The Kite Runner’ as an Afghan, but in all of the Taliban segments, it felt like we were portraying history, as if it were in our rearview mirror,” she reflects. “But working on it again on Broadway in 2022, it was like being hit by a hammer. Those scenes were so real and visceral because this is happening again now. It’s not in the rearview; this is our current life. So I feel like the story has taken on a new life. It’s been really sad, of course, now that the Taliban has had a resurgence. At the same time, I’m grateful to be part of the production so we can remind people that although the U.S. is not in Afghanistan anymore, the Afghans, women especially, are still being oppressed.”

When she’s not coaching actors, collaborating with directors and writers or partnering with Afghan service organizations, Ghilzai is creating work in her own right. Last fall, her play “Pilgrimage,” which tells the story of five Muslim women making a pilgrimage to Mecca, was workshopped at San José State, in collaboration with Spangler. She hopes it will take the stage in fall 2025 in San Francisco.

“My goal with this play was to have a story that is just about Muslim women,” she says. “They are empowered. They all have careers. They’re not being abused by men and they are living their own lives, and they are seeking spirituality. I would love to see more works where women are seen through a woman’s lens, and not through a man’s.”

Becoming part of the story

When “The Kite Runner” returns to San José this spring, it creates a natural reunion for Ghilzai, Spangler and members of the original stage cast like Lani Wong-Bassett, ’07 Advertising. 

Wong-Bassett’s dog-eared copy of “The Kite Runner” has a very special inscription. Hosseini signed her book after seeing her perform in the San José State staged reading in 2007.

“He wrote something beautiful in the book, not to me, but to my character Hassan,” recalls Wong-Bassett, who lobbied hard to perform Hassan, the male servant to the protagonist, a boy whose love for his friend transcends time, geography and even great betrayal. “Knowing that Khaled accepted us as the characters that we were was incredible.”

Originally recruited to San José State on a golf scholarship, Wong-Bassett dabbled in theater until she learned of the opportunity to read a stage adaptation of Hosseini’s novel. A self-professed “superhero fanatic and big nerd,” she says she loved reading a book where “the hero wasn’t the main character.” 

She describes Hassan as a “beautiful person who loved his friend — the deepest kind of love.” She loved that the book — and Spangler’s theatrical adaptation — asked big questions about redemption. “How do you redeem yourself and your family, your bloodline?” 

Now an experienced social media marketer and mother, Wong-Bassett points to her performance in that play as a pivotal moment in her personal and professional growth. She drew strength not only from Hosseini’s characters, but from Spangler’s faith in her ability to commit to the role.

Lani Wong-Bassett (right of center, in brown pants) onstage at the San José Repertory Theatre in 2007. Photo by Mike Adams.

Lani Wong-Bassett (right of center, in brown pants) onstage at the San José Repertory Theatre in 2007. Photo by Mike Adams.

“The experience made me realize that if I really love something, I can figure it out, which means I can figure most things out,” she says. “I had such an intense love of the craft and the character that I shaved my head — a liberating feeling that made me feel like I could do anything. I’ve always taken that feeling with me into the corporate world. Matt’s confidence in me makes me believe that I can do whatever I set my mind to.”

After Wong-Bassett participated in the stage reading of “The Kite Runner ” at the Hammer Theatre in 2007, she auditioned for the professional cast in 2009 and was cast as an understudy for Soraya, the one female character in the play. She explains that the show cultivated a sense of community that encouraged her to give back to Bay Area causes close to her heart.

“The show truly did help nudge me into a life where I actively look for ways to help communities who need a voice or support,” Wong-Bassett adds. “Much of my work is centered around children and LGBTQ+ rights.”

Though she ultimately transitioned from the stage to marketing roles offstage, Wong-Bassett has remained a committed patron of the arts. When “The Kite Runner ” debuted on Broadway in 2022, she flew to New York City to see the magic in person.  Powerful though it was to relive the energy and emotion of the play, she was especially proud to notice that the Broadway premiere listed a female understudy for one of the male parts.

“I thought it was amazing,” she says. “It’s really cool to see that my playing Hassan years before may have opened the door for a possible female understudy for a male part. It’s cool to feel like you’re a part of the story.”

Alumni can register for a VIP Alumni Reception on Friday, April 5, to participate in a special social and discounted tickets.

Get tickets for “The Kite Runner” Broadway tour at the Hammer Theatre April 3-7.