A writer exposes the anger and pain underlying his ethnic community’s post-war American experience through deeply flawed characters and cutting humor—bringing him equal parts adulation for his work and criticism for his portrayal of his people. This is the story of Ayad Akhtar and Disgraced, the most produced play in the country, which is onstage at the Mark Taper Forum through July 17, 2016. But it is also the story of Philip Roth and his first book, 1994’s Goodbye, Columbus, which won a National Book Award and also earned Roth a reputation for being a “self-hating Jew.”
In an interview last year, Akhtar told Newsweek,
Roth broke ground for me:
I was reading Roth, [Saul] Bellow, Chaim Potok, watching Woody Allen, watching Seinfeld. Those were the artists who made me understand, Oh, this is how I can write about my community, which is an American community but also an ethnic community. It’s a religious identity, and it’s one that has its own aesthetics and its own humor and textures...Potok was writing about Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, and I remember reading him as a teenager and thinking, I’m reading about my own people. I know these people. I see them every weekend. They’re Muslims in Milwaukee, but they might as well be Hasidim.
Akhtar also told Newsweek about one of his first public events to support his novel American Dervish:
'In the front row were a line of Pakistani-American mothers,' Akhtar recalls. 'They’re all lined up, looking at me askance, arms crossed. At the very end of the interview, one of them raised her hand and said, "We all drove in from the suburbs. We all read your book for our book club. None of us are going to speak to you except for me. And I just want to tell you that we need to understand what it is we need to do so that our children don’t turn out like you."'
That’s in fact less harsh than some of the responses Roth received to his story "Defender of the Faith," which appeared in The New Yorker before being collected in Goodbye, Columbus. One letter to the magazine accused Roth of having
done as much harm as all the organized anti-Semitic organizations have done to make people believe that all Jews are cheats, liars, connivers. Another letter to the Anti-Defamation League asked,
What is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.
In the Center Theatre Group podcast, Disgraced director Kimberly Senior offered her take on such critiques:
When you’re exposing the cultural cracks, the inheritance, the mantle that a culture wears, there’s always going to be one person negating it and somebody else trying to make it warm and fuzzy. That’s the nature of exposing these fault lines.
If you don’t show characters in all of their humanity and their failings and their rage, then you don’t have characters that are interesting to an audience.
The risk of offending comes with the territory Akhtar’s work treads, which he acknowledged in a 2012 interview with The Islamic Monthly:
Csezlaw Milosz, the great Polish poet, once said that when a writer is born into a family, that family is finished. I think something similar can be said for a community. When a writer is born into a community, there is a sense in which nothing is sacred anymore. Nothing except the process of self-questioning. The writer is a witness. Someone who will speak of what she or he has seen and lived.