You may have heard of it, “Disgraced” by Ayad Akhtar. It closed recently in New York and its very next stop was in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, produced by the Fusion Theater Company. Ayad Akhtar is 45 years old, and a Pakistani-American actor and writer. This is his first play written in 2012 and it won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The play deals with questions of identity and assimilation. The focus is on Amir, a New York lawyer born to Muslim immigrants from Pakistan. He believes himself to be totally assimilated in the United States having shed all the prejudice and any extreme Islamic views that he learned from his mother as a child. Through a series of events all the psychological protective armor that he has built up is slowly stripped away. The main 4 characters and Fusion cast are Amir (John San Nicolas) - Jory (Angela Littleton) - Emily (Celia Schaefer) – Isaak, the curator (Gregory Wagrowski).
His American wife, an artist, is a bit of a free spirit, whose recent work is based on Islamic art. She sees the good side of the rich heritage brought to the world through so many years of the Persian Empire, which turned to Islam in the 7th century. We can surmise that this is what attracts Amir to Emily but it also intimidates him.
Amir’s cousin is a young Pakistani man still trying to find himself. Although he is attracted to Islam he has Americanized his name to Abe (played by Samuel James Shoemaker-Trejo) in order to ease his way in society. He wants Amir to help his friend, an Imam who has been accused of sending money to terrorists. Over his protests that he is not a criminal lawyer, Emily persuades Amir to appear in court even if he does not serve as counsel to the Imam. The press, however, portrays him as precisely that and Amir’s world begins to implode.
It turns out that on his job application at his prestigious law firm he had said his parents were born in India since his father was born before that part of India became Pakistan, artificially, carved up by the British. His mother, however, was born after that fateful date, August 14, 1947. His law partners use the excuse to view him as anti-Semitic. We learn that he has something of a chip on his shoulder making him a good litigator but scary as a partner. He is infuriated when his black female friend and colleague at the firm is made partner when he feels he has worked far harder than she did. I must add quickly before my children jump on me for describing his colleague as Black that this is a vital part of the story, the law firm being a white Jewish firm. To add another ingredient to the pot his colleague is married to a white Jewish curator from the Whitney who has an affection for Emily and one wonders how far that might go. Here is an image from the New Mexican of Jory and Amir still on good terms.
As the ingredients start to mix there is a dinner party with the four main characters, Jew, Black, former Muslim, Islamophile, who is also thrilled to learn her Muslim inspired work has made it into the Jewish curators exhibition. Will the pot boil over? As the reviewer for The Guardian newspaper put it, “A stirring Greek Tragedy that will put you off your dinner”.
How would we react if we worked very hard to make it in another world culture and then were treated as an alien? It is quite recently that we would find a black person more in keeping with a white Jewish firm than an American-born Muslim who does not wish to be perceived as such. Can one change one's DNA, or is it that certain precepts have been drilled into us since childhood and they are there to stay? So many questions to think about. I am not going to give away the entire plot because if I do you may not go to see or read the play.
To my surprise and delight I believe the Fusion’s cast to have been every bit as good and in some cases possibly superior to the one in New York, judging by the reviews. Being from New York, I certainly recognized the curator who I may have placed at the Museum of Modern Art and not the Whitney but then the latter does do the Biennial.
The play has already been produced in London and Vienna and it is on track to have the most productions around the U.S. with 18 venues. I have also read an article about the banlieues (the outskirts or suburbs of Paris where most Muslims and blacks live). It’s called “The Other France” by George Packer and appeared in the August 31st issue of The New Yorker. The real story sounded like it was taken right out of the play. I would not be surprised if “Disgraced” were soon translated into French and if not, it should be. With all the xenophobia we are seeing yet again in this country, and the immigration issues all over the world, the play is a must see or at least must read.