It begins innocuously enough. A young, upwardly mobile Wall Street attorney (and lapsed Muslim) and his beautiful, idealistic (and Caucasian) artist wife are throwing a small dinner party for a similarly successful couple, a Jewish art curator (who’s about to feature his hostess’ paintings in a new show) and his African American wife, another rising young lawyer who works in the same office as her host. At first the talk is mundane but cordial: the latest loss by the Knicks, a fancy dessert picked up at Magnolia Bakery, gossipy chat about the law firm’s senior partners and the latest trends in downtown art. But slowly the Scotch-fueled discussion ventures into more complicated territory: musings about race and culture, power and privilege and the seething tensions triggered by religious tenets and practices from antiquity to today. As theoretical discussion morphs into personal revelation and private concerns become public, a celebratory dinner among four smart, engaging and personable friends becomes something dramatically different.
This is the central event of Ayad Akhtar’s vivid and controversial Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced. After premiering at Chicago’s American Theatre Company in 2012, the play received subsequent productions (first at Lincoln Center Theater in New York, then on Broadway, where it received a Best Play Tony Award nomination). The play garnered critical raves and fueled heated audience response to its exploration of identity, religion, politics and class in the bewilderingly complex, “politically correct” landscape of 21st century urban America. Amir, the aforementioned attorney at the center of the play, has distanced himself from the religious principles of his youth as he aims for success in his career—but he finds that the costs of that disassociation may be more profound than he could imagine. At the same time, his wife Emily celebrates the Muslim world in her life and her work, without completely understanding the tensions inherent in her adoration for (or appropriation of) another culture. Wittily engaging and rigorously smart, Disgraced is neither a solemn political polemic nor an impassioned plea for a particular point of view. The play presents successful and intelligent characters forced to grapple with questions and challenges that cannot be readily addressed or easily solved in a society whose quest for correctness and justice may have resulted in neither.
I am very pleased to welcome director Kimberly Senior (whose production of Rapture, Blister, Burn was one of the highlights of our 2014/2015 Season) back to the Goodman to bring this brilliant play to the Albert stage—fittingly, since she has shepherded it from its first off-Loop production to its recent success on Broadway.
Ultimately, of course, there are no easy answers to the questions that Disgraced explores with devastating humor and explosive emotion; they are the questions that we must all wrestle as we negotiate the cultural minefield that is America in the 21st century.