For international aid workers, volunteering in conflict-ridden zones can be a scarring experience, but coming home can be just as traumatic. That’s what playwright Ken Urban discovered when he interviewed volunteers for Doctors Without Borders while researching a play he was commissioned to write. Indeed, he says, volunteers can face severe culture shock as they return to the routines of daily life after their service ends.
One man said “he didn’t know how to be a friend to people when he came home,” the playwright recalls. “He told me how it would annoy him to go to the grocery store. He’d just get angry. ‘Why are there all these choices? Why are people complaining about things like the subway being late? It just doesn’t make any sense, you know, when I held a child a few days ago and then that child died.’ It must be such a mind-[expletive] to go from that world to this world.”
Those conversations directly informed the struggles of the character Jeremy, a Harvard graduate turned African aid worker, in Urban’s “A Guide for the Homesick.” The play receives its world premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company beginning Friday.
In the story, Jeremy finds himself in a hotel room near Amsterdam with a fellow lost soul, Teddy. The two travelers had spied each other at the hotel bar, with Teddy inviting Jeremy back to his room to hang out and drink beer. The confident Teddy is in his 30s and hails from Roxbury; Jeremy is a nerdy, slightly neurotic twentysomething from Newton. Teddy is in Amsterdam with a close friend, Ed; they’re seeking a little adventure before Ed ties the knot. Jeremy is passing through the city on his way back to the States after a volunteer stint at a health clinic in Uganda. But what Teddy thinks might be a chance hook-up turns into a reckoning for both men about recent experiences that are weighing on them deeply.
“I always think hotel rooms are a little bit haunted,” Urban says. “These guys are haunted by things that have happened to them, and each of them brings the person who haunts them into that hotel with them.”
Actor Sam Levine plays Jeremy and Teddy’s friend, Ed, in flashback sequences that take place within each scene. McKinley Belcher III plays Teddy and Nicholas, a gay man Jeremy befriended in Uganda.
“I was drawn to the idea of these two broken individuals in a room trying to make peace with their choices, their actions or inaction. That’s innately human,” says director Colman Domingo, an actor-playwright-director who has starred on Broadway in “The Scottsboro Boys” and “Passing Strange” and plays wealthy businessman-turned-zombie-slayer Victor Strand on “Fear the Walking Dead.” “I’m sure we’ve all had something happen to us where we wish we could go back and do things in a different way. Did you make the right choices? Why did you make the choice that you did?”
“A Guide for the Homesick” grew out of a commission Urban received from New York’s Epic Theatre Ensemble, a company devoted to exploring issues of social justice. He was tasked with writing a play about international aid workers. As it began to develop and his research deepened, other strands of the story emerged.
Urban wrote the character of Nicholas after watching documentaries like “Call Me Kuchu,” “God Loves Uganda,” and “Africa’s Last Taboo” that grapple with the persecution, threats, and harassment faced by gay men and women in East African countries.
“Watching them really blew my mind and personalized the story,” says Urban. “You hear from gay men who are ostracized and have to live in seclusion because they’re being hunted. I had a nightmare after I watched one of the documentaries. I knew it was staying with me and haunting me, so I took it as a sign it was something to write about.”
Urban says he was also interested in figuring out what it means to write a coming-out story in 21st-century America, where gay rights have become more broadly accepted. While Jeremy has a girlfriend and at first denies his attraction to Teddy, there’s an electrical charge between the two men.
“I think the coming-out story has changed. It doesn’t mean the same thing it did in the ’90s or the ’80s or the ’70s for sure,” Urban says. “Everybody has a different path to figuring it out. Also, maybe the idea that like you’re either gay or straight is actually a pretty big fallacy.”
While Urban was born and raised in Philadelphia, getting to premiere the play in Boston at the Huntington marks something of a homecoming. He was a Huntington Playwriting Fellow from 2007 to 2009. He taught at Harvard from 2006 to 2014 and has had previous plays produced in the Boston area, including “A Future Perfect” at SpeakEasy Stage Company in 2015. This summer he was named head of the playwriting program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I wrote the first draft of this play when I was living in Cambridge,” he says, “and I knew guys like Jeremy and Teddy when I lived here. So it is exciting to tell their story at the Huntington.”
Indeed, the question of what constitutes a home lies at the center of the play. “A home might not necessarily be a place limited inside a structure of four walls,” Belcher says. “I think it can also be a person, the way a specific person makes you feel. The play is about how we sometimes fail the people closest to us. If you’re not honest with yourself or if you don’t let people truly see you, then you can blind yourself in a way that you can’t be there for people when they need you most.”
A Guide for the Homesick
Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Oct. 6-Nov. 4. Tickets from $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org