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‘Disgraced’ Does Not Apologize

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(L–R) Hari Dhillon, Emily Swallow, Karen Pittman, and J Anthony Crane in "Disgraced" at the Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Critics and audiences across the country (including the Pulitzer Prize committee) have been raving about Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced since its 2012 premiere. But Disgraced and the actions of its characters are not without controversy and can be difficult to watch at times.

In the Center Theatre Group Podcast, director Kimberly Senior called it “a nasty play” and one “that does not apologize.” She added, “Where things like empathy, and listening, and understanding come, is after the curtain has gone down. If we do the play correctly, that is what you are left feeling.”

In the podcast, Akhtar, who has faced criticism from the South Asian and Muslim American communities, said, “Is it good for the community or is it bad for the community is of course not a question that you can ask of an artistic work. It’s a question you ask of an ad campaign or a public relations announcement. 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.”

But he remains proud of the fact that in Disgraced “there’s a role for a South Asian actor of talent and endowment to cut their teeth and really test their mettle against. If we don’t have roles like that as actors, then we can’t become those actors.” He added that for the actors who play the characters of Amir Kapoor and his nephew Abe, “Even if they find that story loathsome, it’s still a version of their story.”

Akhtar expanded on that idea in an article he wrote in advance of the play’s World premiere on Broadway.com, where he explained that he was initially inspired by seeing a terrific performance by an actor of Indian origin starring in Hamlet:

I started to imagine an American, of Muslim origin, whose identity was fissured at the root, a man haunted by contradictions and vibrancies maddening enough to draw out every ounce of acting talent in a first-rate actor of Pakistani-Indian, even Middle Eastern, descent.

I see the American experience as being defined by the immigrant paradigm of rupture and renewal: rupture with the old world, the old ways, and renewal of the self in a bright but difficult New World. Even generations after the initial familial departure, Americans recapitulate this rupture and renewal in their own lives, with their families, with their communities. The remaking of the self seems to be the most essential of American journeys.

In Disgraced, Amir Kapoor has undertaken this central American crossing. He has separated from the old-world ways of his Muslim childhood, has adopted every inflection and attitude required to remake himself into the brilliant American success story that he is. A corporate lawyer living in Carnegie Hill on the Upper East Side. In a splendid apartment. With a beautiful and brilliant American wife. And yet, the price of his willful rupture from the past remains partly unpaid, for in a post 9/11 America, anti-Muslim prejudice will not allow the still glowing ember of his childhood to be snuffed out.

In the course of what I hoped would be a taut and compelling 90 minutes, the pillars of Amir’s identity would be knocked out from under him. He would move from being charming and brilliant to vulnerable and broken, expressing along the way the wildest of human oppositions: rage and empathy, narcissism, generosity, penetrating brilliance, heartbreaking and speechless confusion. I wanted to write a tragedy, which required a reversal of Amir’s fortunes due to some human flaw. In Amir’s case it would be denial. Denial of his Muslim heritage, which a post 9/11 America will not let him forget.

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