“After September 11, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to run away from myself,” Disgraced playwright Ayad Akhtar recently said during an interview for the Goodman’s OnStage+. “I was going to have to account for what was happening in my community, for how life changed not only for me, but also for so many people that I love. I couldn’t just run away from all the dimensions of it: the psychological, the artistic, the sociological, the religious. It was a real watershed moment for me in my life as an artist. And it was the first time that I began to feel like I had found my voice.” These themes and Akhtar’s connection to his heritage are evident in several works from the multi-faceted novelist, playwright and actor aside from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced. Read below to learn more about some of Akhtar’s other acclaimed works.
American Dervish (novel, published 2012)
Hayat Shah, an unassuming Pakistani-American boy, must come to grips with what it means to be Muslim in his hometown of Milwaukee, all the while navigating puberty. His only criterion for relationships comes from his mother’s persistent complaints about his father’s infidelity. Just when it seems his life could not become any stranger, Hayat’s mother’s best friend Mina moves in with his family after she endures a recent divorce scandal. While Mina begins to lead Hayat on a spiritual quest for revelation through study of the Quran, she simultaneously falls in love with Nathan, a Jewish friend of Hayat’s father. Nathan expresses curiosity for Mina’s fervent spiritual dedication, but holds a deep affection for his own cultural Judaism. Intimately caught in the balance, Hayat attempts to discover the purpose of longing, both spiritual and physical, sending him careening down a path toward adulthood. What he finds shrouds him in shame, while also unlocking the true meaning of being a dervish—one who gives up everything in the pursuit of enlightenment and (ultimately) love. American Dervish was named one of the best books of 2012 by Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine.
The Invisible Hand (play, first produced 2012)
Nick Bright—a capital broker in Pakistan working to help privatize the national water supply—suddenly finds himself kidnapped and in the hands of Bashir, a Pakistani revolutionary himself under the watchful eye of the wealthy and powerful Imam Saleem. With Nick teetering on the edge of his captors’ patience (and no ransom delivery in sight), Bashir discovers Nick’s business talents and devises a solution to set him free: Nick will use his options trading experience to help accrue the $10 million ransom in the open market. As the money begins to flow in and their routines become more and more regimented, tensions between Nick and his captors grow as each plots more radical ways to make the next dollar. When rumors begin to circulate about political assassinations that could shift the market, Nick and Bashir begin to question whether the rush of gold in their veins will be enough to stymie the blood increasingly accumulating on their hands. Akhtar’s moving drama of cunning, greed and hope provides a stunning critique of capitalism and international affairs. The Invisible Hand held its world premiere at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and was produced off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop in 2014 in a production starring Emmy Award nominee Justin Kirk (Weeds, Angels in America).
The Who and the What (play, first produced 2014)
Zarina, a well-educated American Muslim woman struggling to write a novel, spends her days with her younger sister Mahwish and her conservative, Pakistani-born father Azfal. A devastating break-up leads her to reject the idea of dating someone new, let alone marrying, and she chooses to focus her energies on writing about gender politics and the Prophet Muhammad. Azfal, however, has created a dating website profile under Zarina’s name and begins screening potential candidates. When he convinces her to meet Eli, a white American convert, Zarina finds both inspiration and happiness with the young man. Her father and sister soon discover her manuscript, however, threatening the very foundation of the close-knit family. Bernard White, who leads the Goodman’s production of Disgraced as Amir, played Azfal in Lincoln Center Theater’s 2014 production, which was also helmed by Disgraced‘s director Kimberly Senior. The play held its Chicago premiere earlier this year at Victory Gardens Theater.