Indeed, Disgraced

As an Arab American, raised Muslim, and someone who loves the theatre, I raced to the last performance of Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, a Pulitzer prize-winning play that explores Islamophobia and the self-identity of Muslim-Americans. While fast-paced and gripping, I am disappointed to report that this play does little to challenge Islamophobia and causes more harm to the Muslim community. It also misses an opportunity to link the common struggles of oppressed people. Instead, it pits oppressed people against each other in what scholar and activist Andrea Smith refers to in her paper “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy” as an ‘oppression olympics’ of sorts—an “I am more oppressed than thou competition.”
 

Four actors on stage
Disgraced at the Huntington Theatre. Cast members (clockwise from left) Shirine Babb as Jory, Rajesh Bose as Amir, Nicole Lowrance as Emily, and Benim Foster as Isaac. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

While editing my piece, I read the excellent, nuanced essay on the play by Arlene Martínez-Vázquez where she lays out the context, and poses very important questions. I agree with her that Disgraced is a racist play that mostly appeals to a predominantly white audience, leaving many others, including myself, confused. It’s because of that feeling of confusion that I had to take the time to process this play and write about it.

There are some things the play did well.

It portrayed the complex relationship Muslims can have to Islam in this country: the protagonist, Amir, for example, changes his name, both in a rejection of Islam as well as in an effort to enhance his “employability.” The play also captured the confusion and alienation of some Muslims living in the US, especially young Muslims (like Amir’s nephew Abe), and the identity conflicts some experience as they seek belonging to a country that has on the one hand taken them in and on the other hand inflicted so much destruction on the Arab and Muslim worlds (an explanation for the protagonist’s moment of pride after 9/11?) The play tries to portray the complex dichotomy of wanting to express our individuality (rejecting “tribal Islam”), only to do the opposite—assimilate—while still aware of and feeling the pull of our cultural roots and genetic programming (the beating of his wife is framed as an outcome of some religious programming that erupts spontaneously and uncontrollably—a problematic framing that I will get back to later on). 

Where the play failed.

The play is honest in how it deals with the tension that sometimes exists between Jewish and Muslim people, but unfortunately the lack of subtlety in those moments in the play ends up enforcing widely held and negative stereotypes of Muslims prevalent in our society today. Yes, there is hatred for Jews in some Salafist religious communities, a hatred that is certainly fed by problematic religious interpretations that came after the prophet Mohammad. As the playwright seems to convey, these interpretations need to be rejected and discarded. After all, who would want their child to spit in the face of a little girl just because she’s Jewish, as the child Amir did because of his mother’s reaction to his friend’s Jewishness? At that moment, I was briefly led to believe that that burden is put squarely on us—Muslims—a feeling I often experience when faced with white supremacy scrutinizing us. Something akin to some Black people buying into the perceived impact of black-on-black crime, as in, “It’s your problem, not the system that is oppressing you.”

However, in reflection, I argue that as we take the time to understand the intersection of all kinds of oppression; to understand that these racist, xenophobic interpretations are thriving in a Muslim world pockmarked by the effects of colonization, past and present, and “Western” supported despotic regimes that prosper in prolonging them, we know that this responsibility has to be in fact shared.

Disgraced would have one believe that religious antagonisms are a, or the, core problem, when in fact colonization is, and religious interpretations simply feed this problem. 

Moreover, although the play points out that that hatred between Muslims and Jews is partly fed by the Israeli “take over” [colonization] of Palestine, it does not make the very important distinction between Zionism/colonialism and Judaism. The play would have one believe that religious antagonisms are a, or the, core problem, when in fact colonization is, and religious interpretations simply feed this problem. Failure to point out the root cause of this problem, further propagates prejudice against Judaism and Islam.

In another point in the play, the protagonist's white wife, Emily, tries to counter the claim that Islam allows men to beat their wives. According to the protagonist, if all other methods fail in trying to correct some un-Islamic behavior in his wife, then according to a verse in the Quran, he is supposedly allowed to beat her. The wife correctly points out that the word “beat” in that context can be interpreted as leave. At that moment I was hopeful, “Yes, let's take the meaning of that word a step further. What is it in our Muslim society that allows us to choose the beat interpretation rather than leave option?” That opportunity was lost in the play, and instead when Amir discovers her infidelity, we are led to believe that it's the protagonist’s Islamic upbringing that allowed him to justify beating his wife, further confirming any Islamophobia in the room, as if patriarchy and sexism aren’t endemic to all societies. Indeed, isn't domestic abuse and violence a serious problem in this country?

The anti-Muslim stereotypes are particularly disturbing when there are rabid, rampant Islamophobic pronouncements being made by presidential candidates and their supporters. In such a climate, I think choosing to showcase plays with a more sensitive, instructive portrayal of Islam would do us all so much better. As an Arab and Muslim audience member, I felt that the playwright failed to put in the hard creative work of negotiating these issues and tensions in a theatrical piece, and instead opted for creating sensationalist and shocking moments around some issues that scream for more nuance and care.

When Amir’s wife sides with the nephew that the protagonist stand up for an Imam accused of a terror-related crime, her well-meaning “we-know-better-than-you-about-your-own-situation” ends up costing him his job and indeed, everything else that he has built. She clearly did not understand the consequences for her husband, as most self-proclaimed white allies often don’t.

There is no question that the play attempts to address very important issues head-on, but in the process, as Ms. Vasquez points out, the intent does not justify the impact. Through the wife, it’s acknowledged how often the accusation of anti-Semitism is used to silence justified criticism. The irony, however, was in realizing that the Jewish character the playwright “created” was himself problematic, verging on being an anti-Semitic portrayal of a Jewish person: he's an art dealer, and partner in the affair with the protagonist's wife, he’s manipulative, “in control” of the art scene, and deceitful, as he is exposed as an Islamophobe contrary to his protestations.

Which brings me to the most important troubling aspect of the play—pitting oppressed people against each other. The play begins with the wife creating a portrait of her husband in the spirit of a famous portrait of a slave. I found this juxtaposition very curious. It turns out that Amir has a female African American work partner, and through various quick barbs, we are led to understand that she does not work as hard as he does, always shows up to work much later than him, and that he is often left picking up her slack. After he is revealed to be a Muslim with supposed links to Islamic terrorism, she becomes partner in the law firm, and he is fired. His attitude towards her becomes overtly racist and sexist, as he shouts "You think _You are the nigger in this firm?!” An African American man sitting near me had a stupefied look on his face. I thought, “How can one compare centuries of slavery and the structural racism that still disadvantages African Americans today—whether through incarceration, or at the hands of police brutality, or polluted waters, or the crumbling schools their children attend—with the relatively brief period of oppression that we Muslim Americans experience in this country?!” This situation immediately reminded me of a similar recent moment in Aziz Ansari's comedy Master of None, when in one of the early episodes he compares the African American experience of racism with his brief moment trying to make it in the acting world as a Desi actor.

This is not to say that the oppression experienced by Muslims, Desi people, Arabs, or even Latinos is not “enough” as compared to African American or Indigenous people’s experiences of oppression. However, appropriating a symbol of another’s oppression (in this case the term nigger) should be vociferously denounced, as it is counterproductive, and amounts to participating in that group’s oppression.

Having said that, Amir is most definitely not white. This is where the work of Andrea Smith that I referred to earlier is of crucial value. Smith points out that oppressed people do not experience racism and oppression in a singular fashion that can be ranked, or upped. Rather, distinct yet interrelated logics or “pillars” constitute white supremacy for each unique experience of oppression. If we fail to recognize the interplay of the different pillars of white supremacy, mainly: Slavery/Capitalism, Genocide/Colonialism, and Orientalism/War, we fall into the trap, where even if unintentionally, our goals of shared liberation are thwarted.

In the case of Arabs and Muslims in this country Smith says:

 … if we simply dismiss Latino/as or Arab peoples as 'white,'   we fail to understand how a racial logic of Orientalism is in operation. That is, Latino/as and Arabs are often situated in a racial hierarchy that privileges them over Black people. However, while Orientalism logic may bestow them some racial privilege, they are still cast as inferior yet threatening “civilizations” in the United States. Their privilege is not a signal that they will be assimilated, but that they will be marked as perpetual foreign threats to the US world order.

Given Amir’s predicament, maybe that’s what the playwright intended to show us. However, the impact, as Ms. Martínez-Vázquez rightly points out, and what was lost on many I spoke to about the play, does not justify this possible intent.

I left the theatre feeling disoriented and indeed, disgraced. I found it curious that Ayad Akhtar, the playwright, chose to have the African American lawyer prefer “order” to justice—which certainly doesn't square historically with the African American experience as leaders of struggle and resistance. And what are we to learn from her vindictive, almost childish comeback in response to the most charged phrase of the play? Indeed, there may be African Americans who, rightly so, are so tired of fighting the system that they choose to be in order with the system, but in light of all this, the choices of the playwright are called into question when the African American character is portrayed as someone co-opted by the system.

The standing ovations and the great reviews show the very powerful role theater can play either by deepening our prejudices with a focus on entertainment and oversimplification, or by challenging us to question and see the intersectionality of systems of oppression.

The standing ovations and the great reviews the play has received highlight just how much more work we have to do as a society to more fully understand issues of racism and oppression. Just as importantly, it also shows the very powerful role theater can play—either by deepening our prejudices with a focus on entertainment and oversimplification, or by challenging us to question and see differently the intersectionality of systems of oppression. I wish Disgraced had done more of the latter.

I believe in our collective liberation, and it is in that spirit I write this critique. I find Disgraced deeply problematic with dangerous undercurrents that appear to have elided many of my Muslim friends who saw it. There was excitement in my small Arab community about a play with a Muslim narrative being showcased at the Huntington—an important moment for us—as our stories are being told in a climate of prejudice against us, and I am thankful for that, but that doesn’t displace the need to be critical of the mechanisms used and their final impact on our psyche.  

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Just saw this at LA Theater Works and agree that the portrayals of everyone were disconcerting and not in a way to create empathy but instead that promoted negative racial sterotypes.

i didn't read the view of both Amir and the playwrite of Jorie as racist. The fact clearly established by the play is that Amir has seniority at the law firm and that he essentailly "does Mort's job", and therefore that he is on the path to partner. This can't subject to interpretation as it is central to the plot. Amir's feeling of betrayal towards Jorie is reasonable. Is Akhtar's choice that Jorie is African American racist? Choosing a white female would eliminate the element of minorities fighting to out-assimilate one another in the white legal establishment. Amir gave up family name while Jorie gave up justice, She'll settle for order as she says.

In the Taper Theater production i just saw Jorie is venomous as she informs Amir that Mort has given her his caseload. Her venom confused me. I didn't get her motivation. Does she really think that she deserved the position over him and that for Amir to feel otherwise is racist? Or is the friendship of Amir and Jorie not as legit as it had appeared? Is Jorie's need to crow over her victory in a dog eat dog battle more important to her? In short I did not believe this twist in Jorie's character. Moments before she was adamant about delivering the bad news to Amir in person which belies empathy rather than venom.

Is "Disgraced" Islamaphobic or anti-Islamaphobic may depend on one’s point of view? When I first read the play, I had questions about some of the Islamaphobic content, which is particularly evident in the character of Amir. However, after studying it and researching Akhtar’s interviews and other work, I have come to a different conclusion. I view the piece and Amir’s role more as a mediation on Western fears of the “other,” much like the scholarship surrounding works like Shakespeare's "Othello," which certainly resonate in the play. The same with gendered violence and the religious violence of the play. "Disgraced" asks us to question these issues, not that we necessarily take them at face value in what the characters say and do. Obviously, there has been a lot of discussion surrounding "Disgraced," and isn’t that what we want from all great art.

I certainly didn't come away from reading the play or later in watching it in performance with negative views towards Islam or those who practice Islam. However, I can see how the play confirms what one already thinks or believes. Akhtar has even mentioned this in interviews. If someone already holds Islamsphobic beliefs, those beliefs might be confirmed in that person's viewing of the play and many rightwing commentators have mentioned this.

I see "Disgraced" as not holding up a mirror to Islam but a mirror of ourselves, i.e., how Americans view Islam and Islamaphobia in America. I also find Akhtar's play prescient, as Islamaphobia has increased in America and is at higher levels today than it was after 9/11.

Salma, I appreciate the respect with which you have parsed out your reaction to the responses. When I read your piece this morning, my frist thought was that (as James notes) I don't want to critique staged moments of social dissonance in the interests of 'correct' portrayal, which has an academic quietism that wearies me. We all walk around the world every day filled with prejudice to which we may be deaf and blind, but which impels our actions, our interpretations, our choices. I thought DISGRACED was a fascinating juxtaposition of prejudices and platitudes. I am still thinking about the show, stil wanting to see it again. But, at the end of the day, I appreciate your wish not to entrench your analysis in the 'comments' section, but to try to make the wide range of responses a part of your ongoing experience of the performance. In a sense this 'comments' section is another performance in which we hear and interpet, react, reiterate, explode, etc. Sorry this comment is itself possibly a bit quietist. aghhh - we Australians usually end up saying 'sorry' somewhere!

Phillippa, thank you!!! I am writing as someone who loves theatre, and as an activist and an Arab woman, who ultimately wants to learn more, and that's how I am approaching this comments section. I will not be offended by anyone's response. I hold my experience true, and felt compelled to express it. Maybe that's a testimony to the power of this play. I am worried about our communities and how we internalize our experiences, including artistic ones, as we struggle to make this world better for all of us. I think given the dearth of plays that deal with this subject matter and the popularity of this play, I felt compelled to write about it.

Thank for your interesting view points. I think the problem here is that most who 'analyze' the character and read reviews, and interviews, confuse that with the immediate effect the characters (especially Amir's) had on the audience. I would encourage you to read, if you haven't yet, the review on this blog by Martina-Vasquez of the same play. I feel Amir has tremendous self-loathing and has racists attitudes towards his black colleague, and yet we are manipulated to sympathize with his predicament in the end. I found that aspect deeply problematic.

I have seen the play myself and not all reviewers of the play share your perspective or that of Martina-Vasquez. I shared mine in which I certainly can identify with the character but do not necessarily condone his actions, including his treatment of his colleague or his wife. I empathize with Amir like I would empathize any well-drawn character with a dark side that become unleashed as it does in 'Disgraced.' Amir's comments about Islam, towards his black colleague, etc. are outrageous. And the treatment of race is problematic and that is part of the point of the play.

It may very well be that that's the point of the play, but that wasn't clear; the playwright did not deliver us with clarity to that shore, and left a lot of confusion about that intention, a lot of room of misinterpreting Islam, or Muslim identity, and attitudes to others oppressed in our society.

Look at how the play opens and closes. The play opens with Amir’s wife Emily painting a portrait of Amir in the style of Velazquez’s Juan de Pareja, a Moorish slave. Already this raises questions of identity and how that identity is represented, particularly in the West. The play closes with Amir looking upon the same painting, i.e., a representation of himself and how the world views him. Each of the characters are representational tropes, including Emily as the prized white woman and bleeding heart liberal. “Disgraced” questions how identity is represented and Velazquez’s painting connects the past to the present. If you look at how Shakespeare portrayed the Moorish Othello, you will see similarities between the Venetian general and the corporate lawyer Amir and how little those biases and prejudices have not changed.

If the play wasn't set-up and concluded in such a manner, I might not view/interpret the play this way.

I struggled with the meaning of the that portrait in the beginning and the end, and I delved a little into it in my earlier versions of my review. I felt it was a hook for us in understanding the playwright's intention, but it was still unclear to me what he meant by that symbolism. I think the treatment of the African American Character in the play, and what seems to me as an attempt to appropriate (use of the term nigger) or equate or even trump the African American slave experience in America with Amir's experience, made it hard for me to accept that analogy as anything more than that. Thank you for persisting with this thread, I am really enjoying this discussion :)

As a theater director and someone who has been teaching the depth of Akhtar's Disgraced for a number of years now, I find it hard to find a way to align with your experience. I found the play deeply moving, troubling, and utterly accurate in exposing some of insidious consequences of colonization, "the noble white person," appropriation, the human side of all of us (many people hit their wives (or husbands) when confronted with infidelity, the natural movement toward radicalism when oppression is as arbitrary as race, religious and other isms are expressed and experienced. I found Akhtar's work to expose all of these things and at its core to bring to the center the very human and central issues of identity of someone in a plural society when both individual and society are products of a deep history of oppression and alienation.

I have to wonder at the depth of understanding of these issues by the director and company. It sounds to me as though you witnessed a performance that did not bring the depths of character and relationships I read when I have studied this play. I do not think Akhtar is writing about religion. I think he is writing about identity. And in this very constructed setting he has created a microcosm to explore and presents many aspects of identity that, if truth be told, we can all identify with in one way or another. He has exposed humanity. Not all of it pretty. I believe that Akhtar has given us a much needed chance to inhabit these aspects of who we are and to consider our individual and societal behaviors and choices anew. Isn't this theater at its best?

I don't think there needs or can be a universal experience of this play. We come to it from different angles. I do agree with you that maybe that's the intention of the playwright (exploring Amir's colonized mind, and 'the noble white'), but I frankly found the characters shallow and not very appealing. Yes humanity is not all pretty, but nothing the playwright exposed was pretty. Given the climate around Islam, we are going to see "Islam" through Amir's character. That's unavoidable, despite taxonomies of religion and identity. I wonder if you read Season of Migration to the North, by Tayyeb Saleh?

I agree with your excellent points, and also have many challenges with the play-- (which I found very moving in performance.) I haven't heard anyone talk about the 'Greek Tragedy' angle. Isn't Amir another face of Oedipus? (Willy Loman, etc.) Isn't that how western theatre is built? We are doomed to failure until we know ourselves-- and in that sense, Disgraced is an incredibly 'conservative' text-- almost reactionary. Islam is the vehicle for the message, but not the point.

What a great point, yes, of course, I was forced to sympathize with Amir's tragic end despite all his efforts not to live out the prophecy or destiny of Muslim young men in this country ... and it did make for good theatre in the sense that we were engaged; my companion liked it because he didn't have to count the tiles on the ceiling while watching it! LOL! But like you I do indeed find it reactionary and in this case, Islam became the target, and what a bad time we live in to make Islam the point. Not to mention Amir's loathsome attitude towards his black colleague.

Sure but the prime objections to the play all seem to be around Akhtar's artistic choices to show that, when the blood starts to boil, nuance goes out the window. How true.

I used an 'academic' article that has informed my activism and my relationships to those oppressed, to help me understand why I left the theatre feeling the way I felt. I agree with you about the tragedy of Amir's attempts to create an alternative destiny for himself. I am not asking for well mannered discourse, it's rather where does that discourse leave us, and what comes out of that discourse. At some point, I wondered if the playwright intended this outcome. However, I agree with the other reviewer of Disgraced on this website that the 'intent does not justify the impact'. Lots were offended and didn't like it. I was trying to lay out why, this well-crafted, well-acted play, in my opinion, was problematic. It's obvious you liked the play, I can't change that. I am using this play to carry out a discussion about what's in it. Maybe in that sense, the play succeeds in creating the opportunity to say these things.

Of course the real world is full of cheap shots, one-upmanship, groups pitted against each other and flawed characters grappling with issues, but it is hardly 'academic musing' to object when they are all stacked cheek-by-jowl for the sake of shock and sensationalism. And oh, by the way, the real world is also full of nuance.

Great plays are messy and human, just like the characters in Disgraced. A powerful evening of theater can't be mired in Academic musing -- they must throb with the pulsing heart of flawed characters grappling with issues. Constructive dialogue and nuanced discussion are fantastic for a class room but a playwright pulls from the real world. The real world, as we know, is full of cheap-shots, one-upmanship, and groups pitted against each other. It seems you'd rather Mr. Akhtar write an essay. In a theatrical landscape full of over-rated, timid and mundane dramas (Marjory Prime, The Humans for example) I for one appreciate Disgraced and all its sharp edges.

Thank you Salma for this thoughtful and nuanced 'unpacking' of a troubling play. And thank you HowlRound for providing at least an online forum for the kinds of conversations and dialogue that are so sorely needed in today's increasingly and frighteningly divided society.

As a white person of secular Jewish heritage , sitting in an almost totally white audience, I was horrified and sickened by the rapid fire one-upmanship of cheap-shot, one-line zingers that constituted the bulk of the script, and by the easy OMG laughter of the audience. Given the potential power of theater to connect with audiences at a deeper, thought-provoking level, it was distressing to be bombarded with little more than a host of broadly drawn negative stereotypes, each one uglier than the one before.

Equally disappointing for me is that we have so few public spaces in which we can really engage in the kind of constructive dialogue we, as a society and as individuals, so desperately need in order to undo the damage the 'pillars' of white supremacy have inflicted on all of us. In this context, we need to find or create ways to move beyond the facile 'post show discussions' and begin to create places and spaces in which real dialogue can take place - facilitated, over time - in order to explore the ingrained nature of the structural and institutional racism that poisons all our lives, and begin to figure out how to dismantle those structures and create in its place a society that affirms and supports rather than oppresses the human spirit.

I have seen the show twice--on Broadway and at Berkeley Rep. And have had the privilege of getting to know Ayad personally. His integrity as an artist in not a question. The play is just that--a play. I reject the premise that it is simplistic in ANY way. Disgraced deliberately provokes the nuanced kind of discussion i have experienced in after-show discussions and this board, a testament to the power of theater. Ayad invites us to come to our own conclusions through DRAMA. As I understand it, the play is part of a larger collection of writing that includes, thus far, two plays and the novel American Dervish (which I strongly recommend to all). I intend to read, see and experience the entire cycle of work.

This is not about the playwright. I am not questioning 'his integrity'. I don't know Ayad. What does it mean, 'the play is just that -- a play?' plays are works of arts that are experienced, analyzed and interpreted, some are good and some are better than others. I disagree about the nuance factor, I found many cliches in the play.