Religion, Race, and a Broadway Hit: The Making of ‘Disgraced’

The Daily Beast

November 10, 2014

After seeing Ayad Akhtar’s emotionally charged play Disgraced, one woman—so the play’s director Kimberly Senior recalls—was discussing it with a male friend. He said he had found it repulsive, because to him it had advocated Islamic militancy. The woman had strongly disagreed: for her it was about a man unable to escape his education and upbringing—something shared by many regardless of their ethnicity.

“I don’t know if I’m still able to be friends,” one of them apparently concluded, after the argument.

Such is the power of Akhtar’s play, first staged in 2011 and now on Broadway, which is about Amir (Hari Dhillon), a Pakistani American high-powered lawyer, who has traveled far from his Muslim roots. Indeed, he renounces them, while his white artist wife Emily (Gretchen Mol) has embraced Islam in both belief and her canvases. Amir’s nephew Abe (Danny Ashok) encourages him to defend a local imam who is facing terrorism-related charges.

The centerpiece of Disgraced, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is an explosive dinner party the couple have with the married Isaac (Josh Radnor) and Jory (Karen Pittman), a Jew and African-American, which degenerates into a very personal, firecracker-vicious debate on race, religion, and the meaning of faith.

A pivotal moment comes when Amir admits he felt more than a flicker of pride when fanatics attacked the Twin Towers. It’s fascinating watching the soberly liberal Amir and Isaac feverishly embrace religious identities both have cast off. Violence erupts, from which there is no way back.

The play is complex, and far from partisan. Akhtar—who published his first novel, American Dervish, in 2012—started writing it, inspired by many things, including a dinner party in 2006 (which he declines to go into detail about) and a monologue he started writing in 2009 in Amir’s voice about perceptions of Islam in a post 9/11 world. He is not Amir, he adds adamantly: “I’m not a lawyer, I don’t live on the Upper East Side, I don’t own $600 shirts.”

For director Senior, the play is a “terrific portrayal of our moment—in 50 years time people will read this play and say ‘This is what it was like to live in New York City at this time of shifting identity, and many different kinds of people colliding.”

The play presents two poles of Islam, says Akhtar: the assimilationist-rejectionist Amir, and the more “heartfelt embrace” of the faith, represented by Abe, who also calls himself Hussein. The discrimination and slights Abe experiences are “part and parcel of what we are experiencing in the world,” says Akhtar. “If people are asking, ‘Why are so many Muslim kids leaving Western countries to fight in the Middle East?’ Disgraced offers some answers.”

Where many books, plays and films celebrate the American immigrant’s narrative of rupture and renewal, says Akhtar, few interrogate what that rupture means, how it is manifested, and where it may lead. Folded into the race and religion-themed core of the play are class, gender, sex, love, art, and professional ambition. Amir moves from a swaggering hotshot who seems to know it all to a broken man now questioning everything.

“The audience is very vocal,” says Senior. “You hear them shouting out, ‘He didn’t do that,’ and ‘You can’t say that.’” The play is so much more charged, both director and playwright agree, in a 900-seat theater than the small theaters Disgraced began life in.

When it was in rehearsals for its Broadway run and Akhtar was nervous about the size of the theater, the Pulitzer-winning playwright Doug Wright sought to reassure him by saying that if a play’s ideas were big enough to fill a space they would.

The Invisible Hand, Akhtar’s next play, which will be mounted at New York Theater Workshop, is about a white merchant banker, kidnapped by Islamist militants, who attempts to raise his own ransom by using his trading skills.

Despite its parallel to the present-day ISIS-defined news cycle, Akhtar wrote the play four years ago—and despite both plays’ dark themes that may suggest otherwise, Akhtar is optimistic about the future. “I hope that we can understand our differences, and grow together.”