‘Disgraced' focuses on a Muslim American; playwright says it’s really about all of us | St. Louis Public Radio

‘Disgraced' focuses on a Muslim American; playwright says it’s really about all of us

Feb 18, 2016

This year’s most widely produced play in the country is on stage right now at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. 

“Disgraced” centers on an ambitious New York attorney grappling with his Islamic roots in a post-9/11 world. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama is really about everyone’s American experience, people of all faiths or no faith, according to playwright Ayad Akhtar.

“I’m writing about universal themes,” Akhtar said. “But I’m writing about it from a particular perspective or vantage point.”

Startling, true, surprising

Akhtar, 45, grew up the son of Pakistani immigrants in an Islamic household in Milwaukee.  The play, and all his work of the past decade including the 2012 book “American Dervish,” feature characters struggling with their Islamic heritage.

The mood grows tense as the dinner party of Jory (Rachel Christopher), Isaac (Jonathan C. Kaplan), Emily (Leigh Williams) and Amir (John Pasha) devolves into a confrontation.
Credit Peter Wochniak / ProPhotoSTL.com

In “Disgraced,” the character of Amir works at a high-powered law firm, where most of his bosses are Jewish. Amir doesn’t talk about his past. But after he agrees to quietly support an imam, Amir worries what will happen when the higher-ups find out.

Things heat up, then explode during a dinner party with his artist wife and another couple. Without giving anything away, some of the spewings — especially about 9/11— are shocking.

“Much has been made of things that are said in the play,” is how Akhtar put it.

Akhtar acknowledged that audiences tend to gasp at predictable times.

“When somebody does something that feels both startling and true but ultimately surprising, there can be a release of energy in the audience that is like a gasp,” he said.

Writing about ‘what feels real’

Akhtar fell in love with literature after a high school teacher introduced him to European modernism.

“She was one of those people like Robin Williams from ‘Dead Poets Society’ meets the Oracle in ‘Matrix,’” he said.

Ayad Akhtar was relatively unknown until the 2012 publication of his novel, "American Dervish," a coming-of-age story set in a Pakistani household in Milwaukee.
Credit Nina Subin

But for a long time, he struggled to find his voice. It took him many years to realize he should examine his own life for inspiration, rather than looking outside of himself.

“I can’t be trying to figure out what other people are interested in,” Akhtar said. “I’ve just got to write about what feels real to me.”

So what do his parents think about "Disgraced?"

“They were both very moved by the play,” he said. “They were both just very happy that I was actually able to pay rent. They were happy that this thing I’ve been doing for a good part of my life was sort of bearing fruit.”

In 2013, “Disgraced” won Akhtar the biggest piece of fruit in the industry: the Pulitzer Prize for drama. He said there may be a number of reasons the play’s done so well. It has a small cast: five actors. It’s a single set, a Manhattan apartment, easy to pull off. And it has a multicultural cast.

“It ticks certain boxes for diversity and alleged community engagement,” Akhtar said. “[But] I think a lot of theaters find that when they try to engage the community around this play, they run into more trouble than they wanted.”

What’s next?

The Pulitzer has opened many new doors for the playwright.

“People actually pay attention; when I write something, they want to read it — and that’s really nice,” Akhtar said.

Had it not won a prize, it would still be the same play. — 'Disgraced' playwright Ayad Akhtar

While winning the coveted award has given him great access, in some ways, “it’s only a prize.”

“The play didn’t change from one day to the next when it won a prize, so had it not won a prize, it would still be the same play,” he noted.

Akhtar is now working on a new play about debt financing called “Junk,” a pilot for an HBO series and a screenplay for an HBO movie of “Disgraced.” He has no idea when the film will be available to the public.

“Don’t hold your breath,” Akhtar said. “It takes a long time to get a movie made.”

“Disgraced” is directed by Seth Gordon. It's showing at the Rep through March 6. Post-show "talk-backs" will be held following the Feb. 18, Feb. 25 and March 2 performances.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL  

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