In Disgraced, Huntington Theatre Offers Up a Tangled Web of Bias
Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning drama seethes, seduces
In a time when religious, racial, and ethnic biases seem to lurk under even the most placid surfaces, Ayad Akhtar’s play Disgraced spares no one. The current production in the Huntington Theatre Company’s 2015–2016 season, the drama won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for a 2015 Tony Award last season, following its Broadway premiere. It has become one of the most frequently staged plays in the country.
A provocative and, as the playwright says, seductive turn on the scenario of the soiree gone sour (think Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage or Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Disgraced populates the stage’s plush furnishings with a Pakistani American attorney, Amir Kapoor, who works for a Jewish law firm; his gentile artist wife Emily, who’s enthralled with Islamic imagery; a Jewish museum curator named Isaac; and his African American wife, Jory, also an attorney at Amir’s firm. But rather than light a fuse to get the fireworks going, the playwright, who like his character, Amir, is Pakistani American, takes his time turning up the heat, with things at a Crock-Pot simmer until the stew boils over, with a script the New York Times called “terrific and turbulent.”
The play is “a vitally topical look at modern Muslim American identity,” says Peter DuBois, Huntington’s artistic director.
Cajoled by his non-Muslim wife, Amir, a lapsed Muslim, reluctantly and briefly lends legal assistance to an imam accused of terrorism. In the post-9/11 world, that ambivalent gesture sets in motion a series of exchanges, and soon collisions, among characters including Isaac, the high-profile Jewish curator who defends Islam, Emily, who romanticizes it, and Amir’s nephew, an ardent Muslim who has changed his name from Hussein to Abe (with, he says, the Koran’s explicit blessing) to make life in America easier for himself. As for Amir, he has distanced himself to the point where he refers to the Koran as being “like one long hate-mail letter to humanity.” But things become increasingly nuanced, as Akhtar adds to the mix racism, infidelity, and the wounded pride that seems to be at the core of the marginalized of all ethnicities. It’s a gutsy work, and familiar territory to Akhtar, whose critically acclaimed novel American Dervish is a coming-of-age story about a Pakistani American growing up in Milwaukee and facing the prejudices that plague the land of opportunity.
“The work I’m doing is in direct dialogue with what’s happening in the Muslim world,” Akhtar, 44, told the Washington Post, which in a July 2014 article praised his plays as “masterfully constructed” as well as “brainy, incisive and humorous,” with “hyper-modern characters” who blend ancient beliefs with the trappings of the digital age.”
“Amir represents a fundamental tension: He is somebody who has been brought up in one direction and is working consciously as an agent of the enlightenment in the opposite direction,” Akhtar said in an interview with Broadway Direct. “Everyone at the table has this tension, and when push comes to shove, things devolve to a point where the tribal fealties reveal themselves, basically, in everyone’s character.”
The Huntington production of Disgraced is directed by Gordon Edelstein, artistic director of New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, which is co-producing the play, and stars Rajesh Bose as Amir, Nicole Lowrance as Emily, Mohit Gautam as his nephew, and, as the other couple, Shirine Babb and Benim Foster, who is reprising his role as Isaac, having starred in the play’s world premiere at the American Theater Company in Chicago. (He was also a standby during the Broadway production.) Foster’s Off Broadway performances include roles in Neil LaBute’s The Way We Get By; Kirsten Holly Smith and Jonathan Vankin’s musical, Forever Dusty; and Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw, which was directed by Peter DuBois at Second Stage Theatre.
BU Today asked Foster about how the character of Isaac has evolved, the play’s “oh my gosh” moments, and what happens when the elephant in the room gets to have his say.
BU Today: Are you always fine-tuning or refining the role of Isaac with each run of the play?
Foster: What’s been most fun about returning to this role is seeing how different this Isaac is from the Isaac I first discovered back in Chicago, in 2011. When I started rehearsals for this current production in the fall, at the Long Wharf, I purposely stripped everything away and started from scratch, as if it was the first time playing the role. This gave me the freedom to discover new things and maybe even some things I’d missed before. It was fun to see what would happen.
For one, I’m different and that feeds directly into my portrayal. But also, and more importantly, the actors playing the other roles are new, which allows for a completely fresh experience. The audience is the other character we have a relationship with each show, and it’s a new relationship with a new audience every night.
Theater is a constantly evolving art form: a living, breathing thing, ever changing. I do keep working every moment and exploring every line, and will continue to do so until the last performance. To me, each performance is an improvisation. That’s the fun of it. And this script is so well written. Disgraced is a play that you can explore for years. I’m enjoying every bit of the journey.
Having performed Disgraced in a couple of different cities, do you see a difference in the audiences’ reception? Have audience reactions ever surprised you?
Believe it or not, audiences’ reactions have pretty much been the same. What is different are the sizes of the audiences in these different venues. What I loved most about going from Chicago’s 120 seat theater to Broadway’s 1,000, and what I look forward to here with the Huntington’s 900 seats, is to feel the “oh my gosh” moments from such a large audience. Very powerful. There are always some surprises with audience reactions, mostly from the smaller houses. At times, there can be some uncontrollable visceral verbal outbursts, other than gasps. But my favorite audience reaction is their complete and utter silence when the tension is so high and there’s no movement at all. That’s thrilling.
Do you feel that the play has gained more resonance in light of current events?
Definitely. There is a reason that this play is the most produced in the world. This play opens the door for a discussion on things we don’t feel comfortable talking about, but need to. And that need is only increasing.
Knowing the play as intimately as you do, do you think it is possible for someone to be free of racial or cultural bias, knowingly or unknowingly? With gatherings like the one in Disgraced, is there always an elephant in the room?
I have hope in the possibility for future generations to be free of bias, because I have seen the purity of my children’s perspective, especially when they were young. They didn’t group people by attributes like skin color, they would use shade to simply describe a person’s look, but they had no judgments about it. We live in New York City, where they are surrounded by everything, every kind of everyone, and we have tried to keep the conversation an open one as they grow and are increasingly challenged by outside influences, like the media and the opinions of others, and the reality of racism.
I think with any gathering there is an elephant in the room, something people can choose not to discuss. In this play, Amir chooses to discuss it, and it’s exciting. The elephant ends up in the center of the room, blowing its horn! That’s what this play does for us, too; it says to us, “Hey! Look! An elephant!”
Do you think the play can be a teaching tool?
This play needs to be a part of every university’s curriculum. Not to be used to teach a point of view, but as a conversation starter, and a way of truly examining our own biases. Because Disgraced doesn’t give you answers, but it definitely asks the right questions.
The more I work on this story, the deeper my sensitivity goes. That’s the power and talent of Akhtar’s writing. His characters are so likable and we empathize so deeply with each of them. Every character has a point of view, and everyone is right. The playwright doesn’t choose sides, he simply and unapologetically tells their story. It’s not going to teach us what’s right and wrong, it starts the conversation. We just have to be willing to listen.
The Huntington Theatre Company production of Disgraced is playing at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, through Sunday, February 7. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office. Patrons 35 and younger may purchase $30 tickets (ID required) for any production, and there is a $5 discount for seniors. Military personnel can purchase tickets for $20 with promo code MILITARY, and student tickets are available for $20. Members of the BU community get $10 off (ID required). Call 617-266-0800 for more information. Follow the Huntington Theatre Company on Twitter at @huntington.+ Comments