Theater Review - 'Disgraced' trumps Islamophobia

Pulitzer playwright Ayad Akhtar discusses play's deeper resonance in a year of anti-Muslim sentiment

Playwright Ayad Akhtar doesn't expect audiences to enjoy Disgraced.

"I think 'enjoy' is probably a tough word for this play," he says, after his recent arrival to Atlanta in preview of the Alliance Theatre's staging of his play. "A good production can be deeply absorbing and very entertaining — and disturbing at the same time."

Disgraced takes on the heavy theme of Islamophobia as the four main characters engage in a heated discussion over dinner. Akhtar himself is a first generation Pakistani-American, raised in Milwaukee. And the play's characters include an ex-Muslim named Amir, his WASPy wife Emily, Emily's Jewish art dealer Isaac, and his African-American wife Jory, all discussing issues of faith and identity. So, while at the outset it might sound like the setup for a bad joke, it has the potential for an explosive and intensely dramatic production.

Since premiering in Chicago in 2012, the 90-minute one-act drama won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize and has been performed on and off-Broadway and in other venues around the world. But in an election year full of politically sanctioned xenophobia and growing anti-Muslim sentiment, it takes on deeper resonance. "I wrote it five, six years ago now, and I think that you never could have imagined then that the level of public discourse and the rhetoric could be so nakedly hostile," Akhtar says. "I think that the play was prescient about that. For all of the chatter about Islamophobia, Disgraced isn't really about that. It just turns out that that's the dramatic circumstance of Amir's life, but it's really talking about much larger processes of immigration and American identity."

The subject matter of the play is topical, but Akhtar points out that the way in which the characters discuss matters of race is just as relevant. "One of the connections that the play is making with the world that has emerged since I wrote it is that degradation of rhetoric between individuals," Akhtar says. "So what happens on stage, and the way that language is allowed to degrade, is actually now happening outside the theater as well."

As for the discussions that audience members might have after viewing the play, Akhtar has come to expect a range of interpretations. "I've often said that the play leaves you with the freedom to think whatever you want, and I think that's part of why it has been as successful as it has, because it doesn't tell you what to think." Akhtar says. "If the production is strong, it gives you a powerful emotional experience. But it doesn't tell you what that experience means, so you have to figure it out for yourself. There are a lot of audience members who are not necessarily willing to do the work to question their own preexisting ideas of things."

Expect the meaning of the play's title to be clear by the end, though Akhtar has found that, too, is a constant question. "One of the most common questions I get is 'What is the meaning of the title of the play?'" he says. "And I find that paradoxical because there has probably rarely been a play that is clearer about the meaning of its title than my play. I have a character who speaks the title of the play in a monologue in repetition at the end of the play, so what that tells me is that the audience is often not able to hear that young man and to take what he says as a possible truth."

Ultimately, Akhtar knows that the interpretation of the play is undeniably influenced by the audience members' individual perspectives. "The larger point is that the audience sees what they want to see, and if they want to think that a Muslim is a Muslim and not an American, then those categories are not in the play, those categories are in the audience, and the play is playing with those categories in relationship to the audience."

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