|(From L to R) Adam El-Sharkawi, Jennifer Le Blanc, |
Michael Patrick Wiles, Atim Udoffia
“Disgraced” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Tony Award-nominated play by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Michael Stevenson. With its theme of cultural identity at its core, this is a timely play, the most-performed play across the country in the 2015 season.
Leading an exceptionally strong cast is Adam El-Shakawi as Amir, a Pakistani-American attorney, moving up the corporate ladder and on the way to becoming partner in his prestigious law firm. Amir has rejected his cultural roots, hidden his Pakistani origins, and considers himself a good American.
His wife Emily (Jennifer LeBlanc) is white and an artist who is inspired by Islamic imagery and who seems to have a closer relationship with the good parts of Islam than her husband, but who can’t understand the culture on the cell level like Amir, who grew up in it.
LeBlanc gives Emily a blissfully idealistic character, fiercely protective of her husband, and infused with the love of the good parts of Islam, without really seeing the negative parts that have turned her husband against his culture
When asked by his idealistic nephew Abe (Benjamin T. Ismail), Amir reluctantly agrees to attend a hearing of an Imam wrongly accused of collecting money for terrorists. (“Don’t think of him as a Muslim, if you don’t want to. Just think of him as a wise man, who so many people depend on.”)
Though he does not actually represent the Imam, a photo in the newspaper “outs” Amir and starts difficulties at work, as layers of his carefully constructed past begin to peel.
Amir and Emily host a dinner party for Abe (Michael Patrick Wiles), the Jewish curator of a museum interested in Emily’s paintings, and his African-American wife Jory (Atim Udoffia), who is a colleague of Amir’s. Things aren’t going well even before the guests arrive, as Amir’s past is coming unraveled … his birth in Pakistan, his name change, etc. He has had a difficult meeting with one of the law firm’s partners.
During the uncomfortable dinner, while wine freely flows, conversation turns those subjects that should not be discussed in polite company — religion, politics and sex. Personal insults from the culture of each of the four start to emerge (kind of like having your mother fly out of your mouth when you are angry, though you vowed you would never say the things she always said).
By the end of an evening ultimately defined by hatred and rage, revelations have been made that are life-changing and unalterable.
In the final scene, it is three months later, and life has changed significantly. Amir, who has lost his job, is packing up the apartment. Nephew Abe has become a vocal spokesperson for the plight of Muslims, and accuses Amir of turning his back on his own heritage. (“You’ll always turn on your own people. You think that makes these people like you more when you do that. They don’t. They just think you hate yourself. And they’re right! You do!”)
As the play draw to its conclusion, it should leave audience members examining their own cultural feelings. Am I really comfortable with the mixed-race couple next door? Am I automatically uncomfortable when a man in a turban is flying on my plane? If a Jewish person heads up the local bank, do I think, even briefly, about his heritage? Do I extend myself to a woman in a hijab, or do I avert my eyes and wonder if her family might be terrorists?
We live in an era where so many of us are fearful and where anybody who isn’t just like us is considered suspect, even though we are ashamed to think of ourselves as having these feelings.
Akhtar rips off the Band-Aid on these feelings and exposes them to all of us, forcing us to take a hard look at how we really are … and are we a greater part of the problem than we wish to admit? Are we all, on some level, “disgraced”?