Review: Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar. Produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre in association with the Goodman Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Directed by Kimberly Senior. With J. Anthony Crane, Behzad Dabu, Nisi Sturgis, Bernard White and Zakiya Young. Now through January 31, 2016 at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
The rumbles we’ve heard the last few days about the just announced Academy Awards nominations and the lack of actors of color among this year’s nominees are an indictment against the film industry that they need to make badly needed changes, primarily that Western/American cultural expressions cannot and should not be exclusively centered on the white experience. But, the anger towards the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is somewhat misguided, in our opinion. The Oscars are just a symptom of an overall problem in the film industry: the lack of voices other than white men dictating the future of cinema. Until women and people of color are given a chance to tell their stories, the western cinema will continue to fail and deteriorate as people turn away from film and towards more inclusive ways of expressing the narrative experience as an artistic form of entertainment.
We’ll argue that television has figured this out as more and more series are produced presenting different perspectives. And certainly the world of theater has made some drastic strides in addressing the outcry for there to be more inclusion on the stage to both TELL stories involving non-white narratives as well as actually hiring and casting theater makers of color to help create and present all kinds of work on the stage.
One of the biggest ways this has been encouraged is by the emergence of many playwrights from a variety of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds other than from writers from a northern European heritage. Suzan-Lori Parks, David Henry Hwang, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lynn Nottage, Rajiv Joseph, Stephen Karam, Stephen Adly Guirgis, and Ayad Akhtar are all names that have dominated the list of Pulitzer Prize drama award nominees (and winners) for the last decade or so…and, rightfully so. Not only have theater academics sung their praises, but the works of these writers are being presented, to much acclaim, on stages worldwide. In a new theater world where Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is the hottest ticket on Broadway and where two of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s are premiering in Seattle within the next week (and, where Theatre 22’s fall 2015 production of Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Water by the Spoonful just nabbed 10 local Gypsy Award nominations…) the work of these playwrights is changing how America, and the world, produces theater. New voices are being heard and presented and theater makers of color are slowly gaining ground in what has been in the past, a largely “lily white” enclave for bourgeois white artists and audiences.
One of the most acclaimed, and controversial of these new works is Disgraced, the first play from Ayad Akhtar, the Pakistani-American actor and writer. Akhtar primarily worked as an actor but in the early 2000s began creating film projects with other collaborators before writing Disgraced which debuted in 2012 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013. While his subsequent play, The Invisible Hand has already debuted in a superb production at ACT in 2014, Disgraced makes its debut this week at Seattle Rep in a co-production between the Rep and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and the Bay Area’s Berkeley Rep. Seattle is the third stop in this production’s tour which was directed by Kimberley Senior who has directed nearly every major production of this play, including its original Chicago production, and both the off and on Broadway productions in New York. Also reprising their work from the Broadway production for this production: John Lee Beatty (set), Jennifer von Mayrhauser (costumes), and Jill DuBoff (sound).
Disgraced is a taut, 90 minute, one act play that focuses on a successful mergers & acquisitions lawyer, Amir Kapoor and his artist wife Emily and entirely takes place in their gorgeous Upper East Side apartment over a period of several weeks/months. Amir was born in the U.S. to Pakistani Muslim parents but Amir has given up Islam and considers himself an apostate much to the chagrin of his family, including his nephew Abe, and his wife, who’s very blonde but is passionately interested in Islam and uses Islamic artistic motifs in her own art. Both Abe and Emily encourage a reluctant Amir to support an imam (Muslim cleric) who has been arrested on possible trumped up charges of supporting and abetting the financing of Islamic terrorist groups. At his family’s urging, Amir does appear in court to support the imam and is quoted by the New York Times in an article as questioning the validity of the charges against the cleric.
Part of Amir’s reluctance to publicly support the imam are based on a fear that his support could hurt Amir’s chances at gaining a partnership at his conservative, Jewish founded law firm. Those fears appear to have been well founded as Amir begins to suspect he’s lost his standing at the firm and as a result, both his career and his relationship with his wife, who encouraged him to take the controversial stand, have become strained. Tensions are thus high, as the couple prepare to host a small dinner party attended by Isaac, who is Emily’s Jewish art dealer and Jory, who is not only Isaac’s African-American wife, but also a promising lawyer at Amir’s firm. As this very mixed quartet sit down to enjoy a meal meant to celebrate a big development in Emily’s career, the liquor begins to flow and tongues begin to loosen and the anger and the tensions culminate into a series of devastating attacks, accusations and dramatic revelations that brutally change the lives of all four people.
Disgraced is a gripping, mesmerizing work. “Taut” is terrific way to describe it. It intelligently tells a very complex, complicated and multi-layered story. The dialogue crackles with a sense of tension but also a sense of dramatic heightened realness. It’s an economical story and Mr. Akhtar has done a commendable job of cramming a huge amount of drama and action and plot into a dense 90 minute work. This play takes place over a number of days, and with some of those days being far apart in the narrative…it just brilliantly moves along like a well done film script, which is a difficult to achieve on the stage.
The play isn’t afraid to push just about every controversial button you can push as it delves into the ongoing discussions about Islam and Islamphobia; issues of race in America for both African Americans and other people of color; tensions between the Jewish and Islamic faiths; gender equality issues; the generation gap….really the only issue not approached in Disgraced: issues of sexuality and gender. There’s not a queer character/story to be found here.
And, audiences are very much polarized by Disgraced. Wednesday night’s opening crowd was pretty much split between people who were blown away by the powerful dialogue and bold themes of the play and others who were horrified about the presentation of this discussion. Strong words and complex emotions are portrayed in Disgraced and there are both physical and emotional acts of violence portrayed. During the most violent scene in the play, an audience member stood up and screamed “this is outrageous!” and stormed out of the theater. At the post play discussion, some audience members accused the play of being overly melodramatic and “too much like Fox News”.
But for many others, including this reviewer, Disgraced is a thought provoking act of theatrical bravado that brilliantly and intelligently examines our lives in our 21st Century world. Mr. Akhtar’s succinct dialogue and clever plotting is an example of superb play writing craftsmanship. And, as for this specific production, it’s blessed with superb direction by Kimberley Senior; outstanding design elements including John Lee Beatty’s beautiful set and Christine Binder’s expressionistic but realistic lighting design and outstanding performances by a perfectly cast troupe of actors led by Bernard White and his emotionally compelling work as Amir.
Disgraced is just the latest feather in the cap of the Rep’s new leadership team of Braden Abraham (Artistic Director) and Jeffrey Hermann, (Managing Director) for this 2015/16 which has included major successes like last fall’s production of Buyer & Cellar and the box office breaking new musical Come From Away during the holiday season. And, like those two productions, Disgraced is a must not miss theater event for the intelligent theater goer.