Ayad Akhtar’s globally-minded drama Disgraced was certainly timely when it premiered in early 2012. And in light of subsequent events, from the advances of ISIS, to the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, the play—which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama on April 15, 2013, the day of the Boston Marathon bombing — has lost none of its relevance. In fact, 32 productions of the play will be staged worldwide over the next two years.
Disgraced revolves around Amir, a Pakistani-born apostate living the good life as a successful lawyer in New York. But once the World Trade Center is sent crashing down so too is his carefully wrought sense of self. That history-altering event propelled Akhtar into his own period of contemplation and questioning and on course to write a seven-piece cycle of works that attempt to offer, as explains, “a full-bodied, contradictory, multi-valance portrait of Muslim-American life at this moment.” The characters in these works, which also include his novel American Dervish, as well as the plays The Who and the What and The Invisible Hand, “deal with the challenges of faith and identity in the modern world,” according to Akhtar. “Sometimes they react against their Muslim origins, and sometimes they embrace that. This is a very confused time for the Muslim community in America, but also a very rich one.”
Raised in Milwaukee by Pakistani immigrant physician parents and educated at Brown University and Columbia University, Akhtar recalls his upbringing taking place in “an odd community in the sense that you had all kinds of people hanging out who probably wouldn’t spend time together back home. Just because they all spoke the same language, ate the same food and came from the same country.”
Akhtar’s early religious experiences were varied. He describes his father as “a militant atheist” and his mother’s creed as “an American individualist spirituality with an Islamic cast — Oprah meets Emerson.” But he was close to his deeply observant aunt, and he maintains an urge to process the mysteries of faith. “I don’t take any particular expression of religious truth as having any ultimate reality. I find meaning in Judaism and Christianity. And Islam. It’s an important part of my life and many of my characters’ lives, whether they are reacting to it and try to understand or undermine it.”
Like many immigrant and first generation Americans, Akhtar had to negotiate those byways on the road of the American Dream peculiar to the newcomer. As the complexion of the country shifts, that experience is becoming increasingly central in the lives of numerous citizens. Akhtar’s own journey included a not-uncommon period of dissociation, marked by the determination to be perceived solely as an American and not a hyphenated resident of the United States.
Sri Lankan-born actor Bernard White, who plays Amir in the Goodman production, experienced similar issues after relocating to the Midwest with his family at a young age. “On spiritual, emotional, political and cultural levels, this play is very close to home and heart,” he said. “My father was adamant that we mark the ‘Caucasian’ box on all forms. He saw that it was very important to align with the white majority in order to receive the privileges of the new country.”
Co-star J. Anthony Crane, who portrays Isaac, an art dealer, believes the play requires audiences to reexamine the country’s social progress. “We’re dealing with a time in America when we feel we’ve answered so many questions about how we perceive each other based on class, color and religion, but we’ve barely scratched the surface,” he suggests. “We’ve given ourselves permission not to care about these things anymore. I don’t know if Disgraced makes any decisions or answers any questions for us, but it certainly makes us well aware that they still need to be asked.”
“We’re dealing with a time in America when we feel we’ve answered so many questions about how we perceive each other based on class, color and religion, but we’ve barely scratched the surface.”
Although it is natural to focus on how the cultural specifics of Akhtar’s works allow audiences to spark conversations about contemporary society in general, the playwright himself sees even deeper currents at work in our world today. “If I am really honest about all this, we are dealing with much, much bigger problems,” he states. “The tectonic shift, the seismic shudders that have hit the geopolitical order of the last 15 or 20 years, are not just about tribalism and race. They have to do with globalization and the increasing anxiety of the species on some level.”
Whether or not one admits a connection between the perceived hegemony of the one percent and, say, the devastating inroads of ISIS, there seems to be no question that the world—even here at home—has become increasingly defined as a matter of us-and-them. No playwright can hope to succeed where the United Nations and Congress have faltered. But as Zakiya Young, who plays Jory, an African American lawyer at Amir’s firm, expresses, “My hope is that after seeing the show, people will begin to have conversations they may not have felt comfortable having before, and that these conversations will lead us to greater acceptance and respect for our similarities and differences.”
Thomas Connors reports regularly on the visual and performing arts. He is a contributor to The International Encyclopedia of Dance and the author of New and Far: Looking Through Steve Roots. His articles and reviews have also appeared in a range of publications, including American Theater, Fine Art Connoisseur and Town & Country.