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Asking the Deep Questions with Ayad Akhtar

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Hari Dhillon and Karen Pittman in "Disgraced" at the Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Playwright Ayad Akhtar knew he wanted to be a writer at the age of 15. Until that time, Akhtar—the son of two doctors—was sure that his destiny lay in the world of medicine. Then his high school literature teacher changed his life. When I met her, she was in her late 50s. She’d been through five husbands. She lived on 40 acres of land north of Milwaukee, where she tended a farm-sized garden every morning at 4am before coming into school, said Akhtar. Because of this woman, the young Pakistani American started reading and—as he puts it—“thinking about the deeper questions of life.”

Since then, Akhtar has developed a body of work spanning screenplays/teleplays, stage plays, and a novel that dissects the Muslim American experience, questions America’s relationship to Islam, and critiques the effects of the American Dream on immigrant communities. Akhtar has been called “one of the theater’s most original, exciting new voices” (Linda Winer, Newsday) and in 2013, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his debut play, Disgraced (which plays the Mark Taper Forum until July 17, 2016).

In 2013, Akhtar discussed why he started writing and how his career unfolded in a wide-ranging interview with Gabriel Greene at the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) National Conference. “If I break down my career into four stages, then—basically—I spent a lot of years writing really badly and thinking that I was writing really well. And then I spent a bunch of years realizing that I’d been writing really badly and getting better. And the third period was: I’m writing better, but no one is paying attention. And then—finally—there’s been this recent period where I think I’m writing better and people are starting to pay attention,” he explained, noting that the one word he would use to describe his career is “perseverance.”

The fourth and current period of Akhtar’s career has been defined by a deeply personal focus on his Pakistani heritage, but this was not always the case. “Write what you know is very good advice, but I didn’t take it for a long time,” he told TCG. “I thought, what I know is not very universal, and nobody’s going to care about it. Because it doesn’t seem worthy of this very high calling: questioning the meaning of life.”

In his early 30s, however, “I started to sense that I was avoiding something about where I came from and who I was. It was something that I was avoiding in my work, but I was also avoiding it at the level of identity,” said Akhtar. “And I realized that the best way to respond to this growing awareness was just to be still about it and to see what happened. And at some point, I started to turn and look over my shoulder—metaphorically speaking—to see what I had been running from. And at that point, there was this burst of creativity. American Dervish came from that moment and so did Disgraced.”

However, Akhtar hasn’t given up on those deep questions that so intrigued him as a young man. In fact, the opposite is true. “I am trying to write to the universal. That is what I am trying to do. Period. End-of-story. What I hope is that by writing from a particular place—that I know and that I find fascinating and that I have a whole lot of love for and problems with—I can open onto the universal,” he said.

And he believes he has achieved that with Disgraced. “I wanted to create a tragic arc that was not noble and detached but something else; something that could reach an audience in a much more immediate way,” he said. “And one of the things that has been very gratifying about all this has been that there have been a bunch of people that have come out of the theatre unaccountably moved and they don’t know why. And that is the point.”

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