Universality in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar

Does the Intent Justify the Impact?

When I first read Disgraced, I thought it was a racist play. I could see why it would be programmed in regional houses: it is extremely well written, it deals with timely issues, and it presents characters we rarely see on stage. None of that undid the fact that, to me, it was a racist play. To present a play with two Muslim characters who express anti-American feelings (including pride over 9/11) only reinforces the most negative stereotypes and assumptions about the Muslim community in America, where the Islamophobic discourse is as strong as ever. At this point, it didn’t matter to me how much “whitesplaining” of Islam the play contained or how much the white characters stated these Muslim characters where not true representations of these religions. How a member of a specific cultural or ethnic community behaves on stage becomes the representation of this specific community, especially in a theatre where we don’t see any other cultural representations on stage nearly as often as we should.

Even though most HowlRound readers will likely have some relationship with Disgraced, as the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner and the most produced play in America this season, I will provide some context and a brief summary for those who are not as familiar:

Four actors on stage
Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Zakiya Young (Jory), and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Amir Kapoor, a Pakistani­-American and a successful corporate lawyer, married to a white American visual artist, Emily, hosts a dinner party with Amir’s colleague Jory (an African American woman) and her husband Isaac (a Jewish man), who also happens to be a highly successful art curator who is including Emily’s work in his next show. Through the play, we hear constant references to the racism and oppression Amir has suffered due to his Pakistani descent, which lead to him renouncing Islam and changing his last­ name to an Indian last-­name given his father was born in Pakistan when it was still part of India (in 1946). Emily chooses to paint Amir referencing Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja after Amir faced a racist situation at a restaurant. This portrait raises questions around the relationship between Juan de Pareja (Diego’s slave of Moorish descent) and Amir, as well as both subjects’ place in the world, being portrayed through the eyes of members of the dominant, privileged culture. This question is further highlighted by the fact that Amir, following his wife’s plea, chooses to support the legal representation of a local Imam who is being accused of raising money at a mosque for terrorist organizations. This decision ends up costing Amir his job and a promotion he’s been working towards for years. Emily’s portrait of Amir, as well as Amir’s involvement in the Imam’s case fuel the discussion the four guests have during the dinner party, which provokes countless references to each character’s race, background, and own history of oppression. In attempts to defend himself, Amir highlights the “violence” present in the Qur’an, referencing “a man’s right to beat his wife”, and “renouncing the faith as being punishable by death”. Furthermore, he identifies the Qur’an as the inspiration for the Taliban:

The Quran is about tribal life in a seventh century desert. The point isn’t just academic. There’s a result to believing that a book written about a life in a specific society fifteen hundred years ago is the word of God: you start wanting to recreate that society. After all, it’s the only one in which the Quran makes any literal sense. That’s why you have people like the Taliban. They’re trying to recreate the world in the image of the one that’s in the Quran.

How a member of a specific cultural or ethnic community behaves on stage becomes the representation of this specific community, especially in a theatre where we don’t see any other cultural representations on stage nearly as often as we should.

When this dinner party reaches its climax, Amir and Jory (his African-­American colleague) leave the room and the audience finds out Emily has slept with Jory’s husband, the art curator. Upon Amir and Jory’s return, Jory notices something has been going on between Emily and her husband and they leave the party, leaving Amir to confront Emily in private. Emily confesses the infidelity and Amir beats her.

During the final scene, we see a packed-­up apartment, suggesting Emily has moved out. Emily comes back with Hussein (Amir’s nephew) to seek his help given Hussein has been detained by the FBI due to “terrorist remarks” made by his friend while they were both at a Starbucks. In that final scene, Hussein recriminates Amir’s constant struggle to fit in and speaks to the rage lying behind the 9/11 and other terrorist attacks. The play ends with Emily leaving the apartment, stating “she had a part in what happened” and leaving Amir unpacking the portrait Emily made of him and staring at it, face to face.

Four actors on stage
Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Zakiya Young (Jory), and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Upon my first reading, I thought that, in a play portraying characters of different cultures and races, the only real representation of each of these cultures and races are the characters that belong to them. While other characters “defend” Islam (mostly Emily and Isaac), my thought was that the audience would leave the theatre seeing Amir as the only “true” representation of Muslims onstage.

Given that I work at Seattle Repertory Theatre, where Disgraced was produced, and given it is one of my responsibilities to bring high­ school students to see this show, I started a journey to see this play from as many different points of view as possible and to ensure I could provide adequate context to make this a safe experience for young viewers of all backgrounds. In the context of this problematic play (and how it could be interpreted), I didn’t want Disgraced to be the first point of contact of some of our students to Islam as either a faith or a culture. I wanted to be able to provide context and questions so students could hold the different perspectives within the play and make their own opinions about it. As part of this process, I read every interview with Ayad Akhtar and every article on Disgraced I could find and sat in multiple conversations with staff members and other theatre­makers.

In his interviews, Ayad Akhtar rejects being seen as a “spokesperson” for Islam or the Muslim community. He talks about his development as a writer—how he thought “good writing” was about copying European forms and style and how Disgraced (along with The Who & The What, The Invisible Hand, and his 2012 novel, American Dervish) represent a return to his own roots as a writer and artist. In a CBS news interview he states: “For many people, hearing the word Muslim is not too dissimilar to hearing the word cancer. … But what am I gonna do about it? Keep telling really great stories and hopefully enough people catch on and say: ‘You know what? It’s not about that, it’s about something else, like being human​!’”

Regardless, the national context in which the play has been written has definitely left me and some of the audience members questioning whether it is possible for him to speak to universal truths while referencing race and religion.

In some of the conversations, I heard the playwright’s own ethnic and cultural background brought up several times as a counter­argument to my (and others’) concerns about the play. I am certainly weary of both edges of this blade:

  1. To claim that because the playwright is of Muslim­-descent this can’t possibly be interpreted as an Islamophobic play, or

  2. To impose on the playwright the responsibility to provide only positive representations of Muslims due to his own ethnic and cultural background.

After all, we never impose such expectations on white playwrights.

In others, I heard Disgraced described not as a play about Islam, but as a play about an individual working within an oppressive system. I also heard professionals trying to establish links between the play and the legacy of 9/11 in the American psychology. These conversations made me think that perhaps Disgraced is not quite a racist play, but a play about internalized oppression. Within this context, we can see both the importance of the character’s ethnic background and also the universality of this play.

However, no analysis of any theatre-­text or production is complete without accounting for the audience’s reaction. After all, theatre is not complete until that exchange between artists and audience takes place. As we move to analyze the audience’s reactions to this play, we must consider the two main contexts that frame each viewer’s experience of Disgraced:

  1. The context of theatre in America

  2. The context of the current political situation and the perception of Muslims in America.

Using American Theatre’s The Top 10 Most­ Produced Plays of the 2015–16 Season as the sample of what regional theatres around the nation are producing, you’ll quickly see only three out of the seven plays either have people of color in the principal characters or deal with race at all. Actually, all three of these plays have people of color because they deal with race. Disgraced tops this list. All the other plays, whether or not they specify race for their characters, have been cast predominantly white and, if they cast people of color, they tend to be in the periphery, as secondary characters.

Fortunately, this is counterbalanced to a certain extent, in Seattle at least, with wonderful culturally specific companies such as eSe Teatro, Latino Theatre Projects, SIS Productions, and Pratidhwani, to name only a few. In addition the regional-­level theatre, the Intiman Festival is leading the charge by casting actors of color for non­ethnic specific roles. I use these examples as an acknowledgement of what’s happening in this city and that similar initiatives may be happening in other states.

Plays such as Disgraced not only happen in the context of the national theatre landscape, but also in the context of the national debate around Islam. 9/11 provoked an increase in racial profiling against Muslim people, which has been made even worse by the recent Paris attack. Crimes against people from Arabic countries increased by 500 percent between 2001–­2009 and discrimination against Muslim people in the workplace increased 150 percent. While “official” numbers haven’t been released since the attacks in Paris, the Hufftington Post has a running list of seventy-three hateful acts against Muslim people committed all over the nation, the most recent act dated exactly one month after the attacks in Paris.

So, in this context, where 90 percent of the time we hear about Islam or Muslims is when we hear reports of terrorism or hate-­crimes, and where seven out of the ten most produced plays in American are largely white, Disgraced has a potentially impactful contribution to the discussion about Islam in America, with a pivotal role as one of the only plays portraying a Pakistani man as the main character.

As the play previewed and opened, I heard a black woman in the audience comment on their relief of seeing a black woman on stage who is educated, wealthy, and who is not playing into any of the stereotypes black people often play on stage. I have heard a younger woman of color identify with Hussein’s rage at the end of the play, comparing it with her rage over the Baltimore riots and how her identifying with the rioters could be interpreted as hate for white people, but it really stems from an unending love for black people. I have heard people from various backgrounds speak to how Amir truly is a representation of oppression on stage, more than a representation of Muslim people. And I have heard Muslim audience members speaking as to how they feel misrepresented on stage and how they feel the play fuels current misconceptions of Islam.

Three actors on stage
Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Bernard White (Amir), and Zakiya Young (Jory) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

I can’t help but feel conflicted when I hear Muslim audience members outraged at the way they feel they are being represented on stage, and hearing other audience members (mostly white) continuously quoting the universality of the play.

I can’t help but feel conflicted when I hear Muslim audience members outraged at the way they feel they are being represented on stage, and hearing other audience members (mostly white) continuously quoting the universality of the play. I just can’t help thinking the privilege that lies in being able to see the play as universal, especially when you are not the one being represented on stage.

Yet, isn’t the role of theatre to establish a connection with its audience? While this play may be achieving all this with a portion of its audience, there is certainly a percentage of spectators who leave feeling betrayed. Further, I wonder, to what extent this play is reinforcing social power dynamics, where the voices of the majority (largely a combination of white, affluent, and/or educated people) are overpowering the feelings of a minority (both in the context of the play and socially)?

In conclusion, my assessment is: yes, Disgraced is an excellently written piece of theatre presenting complex characters in a well­-structured dramatic action discussing timely and layered social and political issues. Hopefully, one day, we’ll have an article in American Theatre Magazine when all Top 10 Most Produced Plays consistently have multi­cultural casts and where at least half of them are written by playwrights of color. In such a world, it would be clear that Disgraced is not intended to be the sole representation of a character of Muslim background in regional theatre and both Muslim and white, young and old, conservative and liberal audiences alike will have a myriad of plays to turn to for contrasting representations of one another and themselves. However, today, in 2016, this is not the case. And I wonder who is this play really serving when the voices of those who feel they have been robbed of a great opportunity to redeem their diverse and rich cultures to wide audiences are being overwhelmed by applause and standing ovations and rave reviews.

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Deeply disturbing play. I agree we need more plays with Muslims as main characters. No one accuses "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?" of being racist because of its horrible portrayal of a white couple. But this play, standing alone, is hard to take as a portrayal of Muslims. After all, both of the Muslim characters felt a tribal thrill at 9/11. On 9/11/01 in Denver, I joined hundreds of Iranian-Americans in a silent vigil for peace at the State Capitol. All of them were horrified that this had happened. The play also left me with a lot of despair. The main character tries to free himself from the negative aspects of his religion, then beats his wife. It's an origin-is-destiny theme. That's a fine premise for a play, but what was really depressing was the talkback, where a Muslim-basher said Amir was the only one who accurately portrayed the Muslim faith as a crazed, violent, wife-beating, jihadist cult. People like that can way too easily use this play to solidify their bigotry, and yes, that is very depressing. Having said all that, it's a great play. Deeply troubling. Thank you Arlene for giving voice to some of my concerns.

I am glad to hear you are being so vigilant about what you present in your stages and that you are seeking advice from the community. Definitely keeping a balance between 'policing' or 'ensuring all representations of a certain group of people are positive' and being aware of the impact of what we put in our stages within the context of nation-wide racial relations can get tricky.

Wow, great article.

In anything where thousands of people see it, of course some of them will be upset. Broadcast mediums like this feel so muddy.

I'd love to see a proper study done on reactions of the audience, categorizing them by racial/religious identity - maybe as an email-based follow-up to subscribers? And initial reactions vs. a few days later - my opinion on it has varied quite a bit already and I just saw it this evening in at the San Jose Stage. There was a talk-back with a local Imam present, which was awesome.

Saw the current production at the San Diego Repertory Theatre on Friday, October 21, 2016. The acting was excellent. As I was leaving the theatre, I was astonished to hear so many Islamophobic comments. It was as if the takeaway for many people was the following:

1) Islam can only be practiced as an intolerant, fundamentalist religion and can not be moderate or compatible with secular values as is possible with Christianity and Judaism.2) A man raised with Islamic roots will eventually show his true self and be a violent, misogynistic oppressor.

One woman said that the play proved that we should "not let them [Muslim refugees] in the country".

I felt real dismay. San Diego is a refugee hub. People from Syria and Iraq are arriving every day. I'm sure the San Diego Repertory Theatre has no intention to fan the flames of prejudice. But it felt like that was happening. Also, the violence in the play was staged with great brutality--not only multiple blows with the fist but kicks with the feet--the kind of violence that could kill.

If I were the director, I would consider doing a talk-back with every show. It would be good for audience members to see that many interpretations are possible.

I have heard multiple recounts of similar reactions from different audiences in different theatres, which partly prompted my article. Yes, talk balks can be an effective way for theatres to amplify the conversation around the work, I am sad San Diego Repertory Theatre didn't host one after every show, but then again, I can understand if they ran against capacity issues.

Dear Arlene, in your fabulous essay you ask who is this play for? It is for me. Your essay and the heated debate on Disgraced compelled me to write a response which is published in Arab Stages, an online journal. I hope you will have a chance to read it. I look forward to your thoughts.
http://arabstages.org/2016/...

Wow Torange, this is such a thoughtful article. Thank you so much for sharing and apologies for this huge delay in my response. Apparently Disqus stopped notifying my email when comments came through so I am just now seeing this. But I digress.

I particularly enjoyed your unpacking of the myth of upward mobility as a central theme in the play, something I hadn't considered in this much depth. I am particularly struck by these arguments:

"The fact that much of the discussion is focused on the behavior of the Muslim men says more about where we are as a society than the play or the playwright."

And

"While artists from under-represented communities cannot afford to be naïve about the impact of our work, we cannot be expected to withhold critical exploration of our communities."

Thanks for such a rich response piece.

Arlene, I really appreciate the thoughtful way you've been exploring your reactions to Disgraced, and the way you've made yourself vulnerable by sharing that process with readers.

And it's very clear that you're thinking through all this, and writing about it, in good faith. (I wish I didn't feel that I have to state that explicitly, but I do.)

Yet I think it's worth considering this:

If an Asian-American or African-American member of the theater community were to write an essay arguing that a play by, say, Quiara Alegría Hudes* or Roberto Aguirre-Sacása* was racist in its depiction of Latinos and/or Latino culture, what would your reaction be?

- - - - - - - - - -

* Let alone a comedy by John Leguizamo or Carmelita Tropicana ...

This is a good question. I guess it would depend on what the full argument is and it would depend on which of Quiara's or Roberto's plays they were talking about. I am not as familiar with Roberto's work, but Quiara has very different Latino characters across her plays, so it would depend on which one they were referring to and why it would be deemed a racist representation.

But you wouldn't question the moral right of an Asian- or African-American to argue that the way a Latinx theater artist is portraying Latinx characters is racist? Or argue that said Asian- or African-American doesn't know enough about the topic to be making critical comments about a subject that touchy?

Because there are people who, in that situation, would question a non-group member's right to criticize such work as racist.

Would you be similarly open to such a criticism (this portrayal of Latinx characters by a Latinx theater artist is racist) from a white guy?

(I promise I'm not nearly as reactionary as that last question might make me sound.)

Thanks very much for your thoughtful responses to all the questions here.

Hey, this is a platform for discussion, so no, I don't find your question reactionary and I think there is a lot here that could be discussed.

I think the short answer is no, I do not think one must earn a moral right to discuss racism or implicit bias against a certain group of people by belonging to that group of people.

The longer answer is:
1. I have encountered recently several situations where assumptions are made about PoC's social justice awareness simply because they are PoC. As Latina woman living in the US for the last 8 years, I actually didn't really acquire an awareness or vocabulary about social justice, racism and implicit bias until basically 4 years ago. I have been called out in my own biases many times by white people and I have welcomed them.

2. I do not think Disgraced is a racist play. That was my initial reaction to it. I do think it is a play that can reinforce very harming stereotypes about the Muslim community and that producing houses should be aware of the potential impact of the play and hold those conversations wisely and respectfully.

3. There are members of the Muslim community that both agree and disagree with my assessment of the play. Here are two articles as an example from people who are way closer to the Muslim community than I am with differing points of view. That's what makes theatre so important, the opportunities it provides to understand our differing opinions, points of view and how our own experiences inform them.

http://www.seattleglobalist...

http://arabstages.org/2016/...

I think it's a racist, misogynistic play. One friend (a man) had to remind me (shame on me) that the most punished person on the stage is the white woman beaten bloody in front of us by the Muslim man. Sure, it's well written in the sense that I wasn't bored by it. Most blame goes to the producers for choosing a button-pushing, violent sensibility over another, more humanely expressed one that surely exists in our great theatre landscape.

Wait - In the Seattle production, does Amir actually hit Emily multiple times until she bleeds?

If I'm remembering correctly, in the original New York production Amir hit Emily once. Am I misremembering? Does Akhtar's script specify whether Amir is to give one blow or many?

Obviously violence is never acceptable, but it does occur to me that the two options - Amir losing his temper and hitting Emily once before stopping himself versus Amir hitting Emily repeatedly and eventually drawing blood - paint differing portraits of the character of Amir and have different effects on the audience.

Can anyone clarify?

The script reads: "All at once, Amir hits Emily in the face. A vicious blow. The first blow unleashes a torrent of rage, overtaking him. He hits her twice more. Maybe a third. In rapid succession. Uncontrolled violence as brutal as needs to be in order to convey the discharge of a lifetime of discreetly building resentment."

In the production I saw, he also kicked her once she fell to the ground... When she pulls herself up, we see that she is bleeding. The script reads: "Emily emerges into full view, on the ground, her face bloodied."

What I loved about the play is that it spoke unspeakable things within a cultural space pretending to care about people while we are silent about the savagery of our foreign policy and vapid domestic agendas. So much of what is getting produced does little to advance our understanding of what we are as a civilization. And that speaks a bit louder than the plays actually being produced. Since primarily white people are controlling most of the money and cultural space on behalf of a monied class who obviously will not brook too much truth speaking, this play stands out for just a moment. However, it occurs within the paradigm of a popular culture that requires strong ethnic men to be emasculated, humiliated, killed, or simply deprived of being figures of power or moral authority in stories for mass consumption. It would be useful to see work that speaks to the inequity and/or inspiration of the manner in which racism continues to be maintained by "our" self appointed enlightened culture brokers.

Thanks for writing this, Arlene! I've been interested in seeing "Disgraced" for a few years but there haven't been any productions remotely near me (and I would prefer to see it before reading it...if possible). Your intervention here raises many important questions that we need to be asking in regards to representation, diversity, and inclusion. As you show, the conversation is nuanced, difficult at times, and there aren't many cut & dry answers. I would love to hear more from people who have seen a production of the play!

I would love to hear the actors' perspectives on this, and what it's like to inhabit the roles. I wonder what crises of conscience being offered any of these parts invokes?

So appreciate the thoughtfulness of this essay! I think the value of theatre is the diversity of reactions/perspectives that may result. But because of the power of theatre, these are good questions in terms of the ethics of what the consequences of impact may be. These were my thoughts after seeing the show: ""Disgraced" by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior, at the Seattle Rep. When an audience audibly gasps at multiple moments throughout a play, you know it's hit a chord. Thought-provoking, terrifying and terrific, this play pulls no punches. Its power comes from its disturbing portrayal of the internal turmoil, internalized oppression and even self-hatred that is the result of being a person of color in this country. While this doesn't represent every POC's story..., the questions of self-doubt due to race are palpable. Is it possible to really ever know someone? Or will there always be a gap between what is assumed about you due to your race, and what you really are? As long as the construct of race exists, we'll never be able to see people for who they really are, or ever have the freedom to be our true selves. Warning: this play can be traumatizing to watch, but that's because it's a disturbing depiction of post traumatic stress syndrome resulting from America's racial civil war. Though "post" is a misnomer since POCs are dealing with the ramifications of race on a daily basis. In particular, this play portrays the crumbling of the internal psyche of a model minority trying to live up to the myth that structural racism has put upon us with devastating effects. Seeing this play is only half the experience. Talking about it after you've seen it, is the vitally important part. A question POCs ask me during racial equity trainings is why would white people work to dismantle racism when they benefit from it? This play depicts why. There is no benefit in the long run. Racism ultimately destroys us all. So shouldn't we work together to destroy racism?"

And then, after more discussion with friends about the production, I couldn't help grapple on the one hand with the reality of how traumatizing the experience of seeing the play was for some people (in particular those who are Muslim) with the need for White people to understand the impact that racism has in our country. For me, I think Akhtar takes a huge risk to show the reality of the trauma that racism inflicts upon us all. Perhaps Akhtar took the script to the extreme in order to make the point of how harmful our racialized society is. Amir would not have become this, had it not been for how structurally racist this country is. (The story he shares about the Jewish girl is crucial in this - it shows who he was as a boy and is in contrast to the man he has become). I think my overall reaction is based on having just done a discussion with people of color where we discussed the microagressions that we face every day and a number of people in the room talked about the emotional and mental anguish that comes from that to the point that there's a fear of just lashing out in defiance of that racism. So then to see this play a couple of days later - in which everything the people of color in our group talked about came to life in front of my eyes was pretty eerie. It was like Akhtar was putting the fears of some people of color (not all), on stage. I do agree that many people, especially Muslims will find the play challenging and it is not for all. I also have a strong feeling that those choosing to attend this show are more progressive white liberals that may be less likely to take this representation as the sole representation of all Muslims. Obviously, as Arlene clearly points out, this is not true of the general population of our county as a whole. Sadly, like with other plays that deal with racism, in order to create awareness for some, it can be traumatizing for others - that's how racially structured our society sadly is.

thanks for this, Kathy. i'm about to direct DISGRACED for Cincinnati Playhouse (which is why I'm reading every single thing written about it) and while the play has blown me away from the time I saw it in its original production at American Theatre Company in Chicago, to the many times I've taught it, I share the same creeping discomfort that Arlene articulates so well above. At the same time, I know in my bones there is something deep and true in the play and you've given me the language for it: the PTSD of institutionalized racism. I'm reading a A LIttle Life by Hanya Yanagihara right now and at the center of the story is a character who was regularly sexually abused by many different people who were charged to care for him from a very early age. His self-hatred is profound and unshakable. Your idea of the PTSD of being subjected to the abuse of racism for one's entire life called Yanagihara's novel to mind. The challenge of the play is teasing that idea out from the mass tangle of dominant cultural assumptions about the basic violence underlying Islam. wish me luck!

I saw this play in New York in December of 2014 and reacted similarly, Arlene. My perception of the play's racism was augmented by the reaction of the elderly white woman I sat next to. Following the play, she turned to me and said, "There's nothing we can do... They're animals." It was very clear to me that she had taken Amir as a representation of an entire marginalized group. With so few positive representations of Muslims in American media, this play didn't challenge her prejudice one iota. While I'm all for presenting "complicated and provocative" characters (to borrow Sergei's language), I think we need to consider whether those representations challenge dominant (and oppressive) narratives or promulgate them. (Especially at regional theaters, which are often financially inaccessible to all but the most privileged audiences.)

This essay has me thinking more about the context in which all our plays exist rather than the plays themselves--how the power structures in our society can imbue a play with additional meaning whether we want them to or not.

What if we fast forward a 100 years and imagine a country where the overwhelming majority are people of color, that the plays on stage reflect that reality. In this new scenario we can imagine that when a play by a white playwright is produced--say a contemporary (our time) play where the characters are horrible people--will this play in this new context take on new meaning? Will the play now have a different impact on those who watch it?

I'm thinking about this because yes I think as a playwright I want the freedom to write complicated characters, characters that sometimes make poor choices and I of course don't want them to suddenly be representatives of my cultural community.

I'm not sure how/if I can undo the context in which I write. But I think having these types of conversations will at least remind us that those power structures exist and they do affect our work whether we want them to or not.

yes, amiga--i've been thinking about the same time. we've certainly had really only the most fringe protests when christians have questioned christianity onstage. or when white people make bad choices. i'd argue every character onstage in Disgraced makes bad choices, but Amir's ignite controversy because we are most afraid of him.

By trying to make theater a "safe" experience for young people, you're turning them off watching stories on stage. Kids are savvy and want provocative entertainment and challenging subject matter. Check out what they're watching on youtube. Nothing safe about it. Safe = the death of theater.

I appreciate your comment, James. I completely agree that students don't need to be 'cuddled' and are ready and willing to have deep and challenging conversations. My aim of 'making the experience safe' was just an intention to make sure I was providing some context so they could make their own opinions about the play. Unfortunately, kids in American schools do not study religion at all, so it was just important to me that Amir wouldn't be the first thing they every heard about Islam (alongside with the bombings and hate-crimes reported by the news). I did workshops with the students both before and after they saw the play and I must say we had rich, complex and powerful conversations after the play, with contradicting points of view that they were able to listen to and respect.

Since overwhelmingly white and privileged regional theater audiences might get the wrong idea, let's make sure to not present complicated, provocative depictions of brown people until we're absolutely sure. Good fix, there.

Fair enough. However, the point of the article is to describe my journey from seeing Disgraced as a racist play to trying to understand why I was having such strong reactions to it, when faced with the task of having to expose young minds to what I thought at first was a racist play. I am sorry my first sentence put you off from the rest of the article. Definitely something for me to take into account for the future.

Thanks for the article, Arlene. I appreciate your efforts and conclusions (or questions).

I saw the play in New Haven, left fairly uncertain, read it a few times along with several of the author's interviews and thought pieces like this, and remain as unsettled as, it seems, you.

It's not that it doesn't make me think, rather that I can't plumb the depths that I'd expect/want to from all my attempts to sort it out. I just chalk it up to "not enough life experience."

Maybe it's just too arcane or beyond me. But the general reaction (and the superficial post-performance discussion the night I saw it) lead me to believe that it requires a LOT more work by the audience (and reviewers) than could possibly be expected. As such, the themes and psychology it taps into might be better left undisturbed.

So well framed, Arlene, thank you. The Seattle Rep is strengthened by your insight & vigilance, and I'm grateful that you have been able to contextualize the play for their student audiences, and provide other references with which to encounter Muslim culture & faith. It is a well-crafted play, but at what cost? May more voices be heard, more plays written...