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:
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.
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:
To claim that because the playwright is of Muslim-descent this can’t possibly be interpreted as an Islamophobic play, or
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:
The context of theatre in America
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.
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.