Disgraced, by playwright, novelist, screenwriter and actor Ayad Akhtar, premiered in Chicago in 2012 at American Theatre Company. The play then went on to New York’s Lincoln Center Theater, subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize and later transferred to Broadway, where it earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. Chicago-based director Kimberly Senior (Goodman Theatre’s Rapture, Blister, Burn) has accompanied Akhtar at every step of the play’s continued journey, helming the original Chicago production as well as the off-Broadway and Broadway mountings. Now Akhtar and Senior return to Chicago after the show’s New York success to present a new production of the gripping drama. Shortly before rehearsals Akhtar and Senior spoke with Jonathan L. Green, the production’s dramaturg, about their enduring collaboration and their own experiences with religion and art.
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Jonathan L. Green: Ayad, in the published version of this script you make a note for directors that although Disgraced is a play dealing with big ideas, it’s actually written to be entertainment: comedy, thriller, tragedy. Why did you feel this story needed to be a play, something experienced live, rather than a book or screenplay?
Ayad Akhtar: I got to a point where I was writing screenplays, but none of the films I wrote were getting made. I knew I wanted to write a play ever since college, but I never really did it. I had ideas for different stories and all that just started percolating into something about this character, Amir. The earliest draft of the play, which very few people have seen, begins with a monologue that Amir delivers to the audience. He’s remembering and talking about this dinner party, and that’s how it started. I just followed it from there.
Kimberly Senior: Having also read your novel American Dervish, I believe there is something to the medium of theater that denies the audience an interior experience [inside the minds] of the characters. That’s essential to Disgraced. We are constantly assessing people’s motives and allegiances and constantly switching sides. We are presented solely with what they say and do. We don’t get to know what they think. Whereas [Akhtar’s novel] is intended as a partnership with the reader; [in the novel] we know what’s going on inside the characters’ heads.
JLG: The play’s protagonist is a Muslim-raised apostate and many religions are discussed in the play. Did either of your religious or irreligious upbringings affect your work on the play?
KS: In a larger sense, when audiences interact with Disgraced, they think they’re signed up to align with the person who looks most like them or who has the same background. They find very quickly that’s not the case. As an Arab-Jewish woman, I never feel more Jewish than when I am the only Jew in the room. And the least Jewish I’ve felt in my entire life was when I visited Israel. You have no need to assert yourself then. But when I’m sitting in a room full of white people, then I’m like, “Oh, by the way, I’m only half white.” The play makes the characters have to stand by their identities in a way that they might not otherwise because each of them is a minority. They have to defend their point of view. The play made me assess that. Which of these traditions do I practice? Are they old and meaningless, or actually valuable?
The play seems to function as a weird kind of litmus test. It tells you where you are in society and has the capacity to connect people to themselves in a more heartfelt way.
AA: I had a high school teacher who really changed my life and made me want to become a writer. She made me read a lot of high-modernist European work. I had this idea for a very long time that being the best writer possible meant aspiring to write like that. And in a way, it put me at odds with my own subject matter, my own community. It didn’t seem to me that what I’d grown up with and experienced fit into any paradigm of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice or Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Even theatrically, when I went to college and studied Samuel Beckett, Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Harold Pinter, it kept me at distance from my own subject matter. I think there was also a psychological reason for that: in a way, I was trying to distance myself from my family, my community, the ways I thought that I had been brought up and things that I had seen which felt very backward and retrograde. I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to make progress as an individual unless I differentiated myself from this part of myself. For a long time that differentiation meant running away from it and pretending it didn’t exist, especially artistically, and I tried to write a certain way. Then, you know, life happens. [Philosopher] Søren Kierkegaard said, “Someday the circumstances of your life may tighten upon you the screws of its rack and compel you to come out with what really dwells in you.” That’s what happens in Disgraced. One of the big, big screws for me through the experience of 9/11 was a recognition that I wasn’t going to be able to run away from myself. 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 who I love. I couldn’t just run away from all the dimensions of it: the psychological, the artistic, the sociological, the religious. American Dervish, Disgraced and [Akhtar’s 2014 play] The Who and the What all came from that. It was a real watershed moment in my life as an artist. It was the first time that I began to feel like I had found my voice.
JLG: Kimberly remarked earlier that the characters in Disgraced are all, in a way, minorities. They’re heartfelt and also very conflicted and complicated. Have you seen any particular embrace or push-back from any communities—religious, ethnic or otherwise?
AA: Both embrace and rejection. And very, very vigorous. The play seems to function as a weird kind of litmus test. It tells you where you are in society and has the capacity to connect people to themselves in a more heartfelt way, and to connect them to others as well. I know a lot of people resist that. Some people feel like the mirror aspect says stuff it shouldn’t say, and some people feel the mirror does stuff it shouldn’t do. I’ve gotten an equal amount of feedback from both sides of the Muslim community with some people asking, “Why are you doing this?” and others saying,“Thank God you are doing this!”
JLG: You’ve worked on this play many times together—in Chicago, at Lincoln Center, on Broadway and now here at the Goodman. Kimberly once told me that each time felt like putting together a really a different production; each run uncovered different aspects of the script. How have you seen the play develop over the last several years you’ve worked together?
KS: It’s become more sophisticated and nuanced, and I think there is a greater reliance on the actor. I was talking to [the actor playing Isaac in the Goodman production] J. Anthony Crane and said, “This is a play where the drama can go many ways. There are a million ways to play those moments.” But I promise you I know exactly how the comic parts work. Removing a syllable, flipping a sentence so that it works just the right way—that’s the math and science of it. We’ve been able to perfect how the table gets set for the dinner party. I can teach somebody how to do that. What actually happens in the conversation where Isaac says to Amir, “I’m sorry if I brought up something sensitive between you and Emily,” that line can be played a myriad of ways. That’s the sophistication—Ayad said we’ve increased the thread count of the production.
AA: A lot of work was done at every stage, from Chicago to New York, from New York to London, from London to Broadway, but it finally feels like it’s found its most mature form. All the various narrative strands finally coexist with the right weave, to use the thread count metaphor.
JLG: The play will be produced at 10 major American regional theaters in the upcoming year alone, 32 productions in the next 24 months and HBO is interested in a film version. What’s next for this play and for you, Ayad?
AA: There are six productions in Germany—
KS: Oh, we were going to go to Germany this spring and that didn’t really work out, so we may have to put Germany in our future…
AA: Kimberly, I don’t know that I could bring myself to go see that production.
KS: I’ll go and you can wait at the bar across the street.
AA: [Laughs.] Okay, okay, okay, okay. When I talk about foreign productions like in Germany, or now they’re doing six productions in Australia, I wonder what’s going on there, that kind of rampant anti-Muslim racism, who exactly the audience is—how they’re really going to respond to a play like this. It’s complicated.
JLG: Kimberly, you made your Broadway debut directing this play, but you’ve been directing in Chicago for years. What was your Broadway experience like, in contrast to working in some of Chicago’s biggest and smallest theaters?
KS: The amount of work, the love and everything that I put into the play is the same whether the theater is above a Mexican restaurant or on [Broadway]. The language I use and the way that I speak about the work is the same. The biggest thing is in the difference between commercial and non-profit theater. Directing Disgraced for the Goodman, I’m part of the theater’s rich history; I’m on a continuum of American theater that’s happening here. There’s a whole machine working to make this play and many other plays happen. Whereas on Broadway, I was the theater company. You know? That was it. I was like the creative head of a theater company called Disgraced. It’s very different making a singular entity in that way. I couldn’t have done it without all 20 of those years of making plays in Chicago storefronts and the confidence that I’ve gained from so many fantastic people here.