NAZIRA, India – Far from the lost twin towers of lower Manhattan, a play on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by a traveling band of actors is holding audiences spellbound in a remote corner of India.
Thousands of men, women and children are crowding into a huge canvas tent in Nazira, a small town in northeastern Assam state, to watch two dozen actors dressed in Afghan-style shirts and turbans recreate Taliban country in a play called "Usama bin Laden."
A hush descends on the audience as the stage lights focus on a cave, where an actor playing bin Laden, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, gets Taliban fighters to pledge to the destruction of America.
As the scene fades, another part of the stage lights up on a young American soldier, whose life takes a dramatic turn when he's asked to join U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Traveling on foot, or on bicycles or by bus, the spectators begin lining up for tickets hours before the two daily shows in this sleepy town, 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of Gauhati, Assam's capital.
"Even children have heard of bin Laden. It's curiosity that has made me come," said Dilip Bordoloi, a college teacher among some 4,000 people packed into the tent for the Sankardev Theater's performance last Sunday.
Outside the tent on a soccer field, vendors sell buttered popcorn and pink cotton candy as balloons bob among the throngs waiting for tickets.
Within weeks of the events of Sept. 11, Biswa Saikia, a stocky man in his late forties who set up the theater group 10 years ago, decided to adapt the events surrounding the attacks for the stage.
"We have succeeded in exposing the fact that bin Laden was actually using Islam to further his own vicious goals and thrust what I call 'Ladenism' in the name of jihad, " said director Sewabrata Borua.
The two-hour play in the local Assamese language, with a sprinkling of English and live keyboard music, is performed on adjoining stages.
"The play's message is loud and clear: Islam does not preach violence. It has been used and projected like that by the likes of bin Laden," said scriptwriter Samarendra Barman, a Hindu.
Like much of India, the actors and audience are a mix of Muslims and Hindus who work and live together with ease. And like the leaders of this South Asian nation, the audience backed the Americans and scorned the acts of the Taliban and bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.
Some in the audience threw up their hands in anger and hid their faces when Taliban fighters were depicted killing two Afghan teenagers.
"I'm not much of a theatergoer. But I decided to see 'Laden' after reading so much about his terror acts," said Minoti Bora, a college student. "I got a fair idea of how bad the Taliban was."
The Sankardev Theater group is a small community of some 100 actors, technicians, cooks and assistants who are on the road for an eight-month season beginning each August.
"I have not seen even a single television image of the twin towers being attacked and crashing," said Pranab Sarma, who plays bin Laden.
"But I read up whatever newspaper clippings I could and plastered the walls of my home and our camp with Laden's photographs. I used to look at these pictures before I slept each night."
Jita Saikia, playing an Afghan woman whose family is killed by Taliban raiders, moved audience members to close their eyes and hang their heads in sadness.
"Her powerful acting gave us an idea about the Taliban, how they could kill a boy because his mother would not let him join the Taliban troops, or commit atrocities on a family for letting their daughters go to school," said Arati Bhuyan, a homemaker, after seeing the play.
Apart from powerful themes, traveling theaters in Assam are famous for their ingenious special effects. In the bin Laden play, cardboard helicopters fly onto the stage with tail lamps blazing. Half-a-dozen American commandos, played by actors in full battle gear, shimmy down ropes onto the stage as tanks roll into the battle zone.
The play ends with the triumph of good over evil as the Afghan housewife with the support of American and northern alliance soldiers, enters a Taliban hideout. In a twist on recent history, she helps rescue a kidnapped American journalist who had been taken hostage.
With a burst of flames, the play concludes with two jetliners slamming into the World Trade Center. The audience does not boo or cheer.
"Terrorism is a global menace," Jagadish Barman, a veterinarian, said as he walked out. "What I liked most about the play, aside from the performance, is its message against violence and the gun culture."