In Disgraced, Chicago-based actor Behzad Dabu portrays Abe, the 22-year-old nephew of successful Manhattan lawyer Amir. Abe’s request for his uncle to assist a local imam facing legal trouble sparks the tumultuous events of Ayad Akhtar’s drama. The Goodman production of Disgraced will mark a homecoming of sorts for Dabu, who also played Abe in the play’s world premiere production at Chicago’s American Theatre Company (ATC) in 2012. Below Dabu recounts his initial experience with the play and working with Akhtar and director Kimberly Senior (who returns for the Goodman production)—plus why he is excited to return to the drama now that Disgraced is a Pulitzer Prize-winning theatrical sensation.
It’s funny to think that Disgraced almost wasn’t part of my life. After being involved with an early workshop of the play, I was overseas when auditions for the ATC production were scheduled and wasn’t available. At first I was incredibly bummed, but luckily I was able to audition via Skype and would eventually witness and contribute to how this incredible play came together.
Disgraced seemed like a truly unique play. I’m not Muslim, but I often play what you could call “brown characters.” Their stories frequently take place against the backdrop of war in the Middle East and they face lots of turmoil and violence. Disgraced’s protagonist Amir is very different. This character is on top of the world—he’s wealthy, married to a beautiful woman, lives in a luxurious home and wears fancy clothes. I loved the prospect of showing a Muslim in that kind of successful light even though he’s struggling with his own issues of identity and assimilation.
Kimberly Senior taught at Columbia College, where I went to school, so we knew each other in passing before the ATC production. She’s smart, very collaborative and just amazing to work with overall. Kimberly really believes that every night in the theater is an opening night. One of her theories about directing plays, which I find very valuable and have adapted in my own work after Disgraced, is that the play creation process is not built form the ground up like the construction of a building. She believes you “orbit” around a play. A lot of directors move towards one goal, building off the previous day’s work. But Kimberly is constantly circling the work done in a rehearsal space. You may work on one section of the play one day and then return to it a few days later to see if new aspects emerge.
I love that my character Abe goes through a huge transformation throughout the play. He starts out as this innocent boy, and by the end becomes a little more sharp-edged, radical and blunt. There were a lot of additions to the character from week to week during the ATC production and I truly felt like I was developing the character with Ayad and Kimberly. There is nothing more exciting and exhilarating for me as an actor than working on a new play. Without revealing too much, Abe is the character who sort of delivers the message of the play in the final act. In a way he is in the audience’s shoes and gets to say to Amir what the audience may be thinking. But what’s masterful about Ayad’s writing is how you don’t see what’s coming next. It’s so fluid that all the sudden you think, “Oh my god, we’re here?” That’s so true to real life. It’s like getting in an argument with a significant other over something mundane like directions or dinner reservations and having the fight quickly escalate to a much more sensitive topic. This is a play about identity, how to define the American Dream and the sacrifices someone has to make to achieve that dream. The play brilliantly shows a man struggling with identity and how that manifests in his relationships, career and family.
I was able to attend the play’s opening night on Broadway and it was amazing to see a play I truly care about succeed. I’m so excited for the opportunity to re-investigate this play and continue exploring the character of Abe. It will be incredible to go from performing this play in the 100-seat theater at ATC to performing for an audience of 850 in the Goodman’s Albert Theatre. My performance definitely won’t be a carbon copy of what I did three years ago. It can’t even be copied night to night at the Goodman. I’ve grown over the past few years and am a different person than I was in 2012; that will certainly inform how I approach the character. Like Kimberly says, every night is an opening night. And for each of those opening nights I truly want every audience member to leave the theater thinking about their own heritage or assimilation, as well as the sacrifices they may have made for money, success, power, career or whatever it is they think they want from life.