Ayad Akhtar’s ‘Disgraced’: Identity can mean heartbreak at Northern Stage

Jim Lowe / Staff photo

Jim Lowe
THE LOWE DOWN

Northern Stage Artistic Director Carol Dunne offered two compelling reasons for presenting “Disgraced,” Ayad Akhtar’s controversial and unsettling play about a Muslim-American struggling for identity in a post-9/11 United States.

“Having grown up and experienced all of the racism, people looking different than I did getting patted down at airports, seeing this kind of mistrust post-9/11 that I thought was so ugly, this speaks to it,” she said. “Having moved to Vermont, the whitest area I’ve ever lived in my life, and knowing this is an area that’s hungry for equality, for peace and for good, this is a play that needs to be discussed — and wants to be discussed — in our region.

“And it’s such a good play,” Dunne said. “It’s a strong story, and from start to finish, it’s sort of like a stream train.”

Northern Stage, the Upper Valley professional theater, will present “Disgraced” Feb. 28-March 18 at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction, with Dunne directing.

In “Disgraced,” Amir Kapoor is a successful Pakistani-American lawyer rapidly moving up the corporate ladder while distancing himself from his cultural roots. He gets caught up in a case against a local Imam, and the perception of his involvement ripples through his work, his marriage to his white wife Emily, and ultimately explodes at a dinner party with his African-American business colleague and her Jewish art dealer husband. The couples’ discussion turns to questions of religious faith, and what begins as simple dinner conversation escalates into something far more damaging.

“The players are a quartet of accomplished New Yorkers of differing races, creeds and, yes, colors, although they have all arrived at the same high plateau of worldly achievement and can agree on the important things, like the tastiness of the fennel and anchovy salad and the banana pudding from Magnolia Bakery,” wrote Charles Isherwood in his New York Times review of the 2012 Broadway premiere. “What they cannot agree on — and what will ultimately tear apart at least one of the relationships in the play — is who they really are and what they stand for, once the veneer of civilized achievement has been scraped away to reveal more atavistic urges.”

One quality that underscores the drama and propels the play at such high speed is unpredictability.

“It’s courageous in what (Akhtar) has to say, where he says it, when he says it, how he says it. That to me is what is so unexpected about it,” Amar Srivastava, who plays Amir, said after a recent rehearsal.

Srivastava grew up in the suburbs of Boston, and for awhile was the only dark-skinned boy in the neighborhood.

“Not everyone, but there was a handful of folks — you know how children are, picking on other kids — used the N-word,” he said. “When I got a little older and they got a little brighter, they figured out the appropriate words.

“I might not be Muslim, but I can relate,” Srivastava said. “That’s why I like this playwright. The unpredictability is his courageousness.”

Amir’s flawed character has drawn criticism from the American Muslim community.

“The play gets credibility because the playwright is from a Muslim family, but they feel he is criticizing his own religion,” Dunne said. “They think Amir has too many clichés — the violent Muslim. He’s the bad guy for a moment in the play.

“I think that’s a very important thing to talk about also,” Dunne said. “Their point is that if there were 50 plays by Muslim writers right now, this could be one point of view. But the problem it’s the only point of view out there.”

Still, “Disgraced,” more than race, is ultimately about people — anyone.

“This is a heartbreaking play that exposes the biases we hold against one another and so rarely come to terms with,” Dunne said. “Every character is hurt in this play by simmering prejudice.”

A complimentary post-show reception with the cast follows the March 3 opening night performance. A free “Spot On” moderated conversation will contextualize the production, 3 to 4 p.m. March 4 (RSVP are requested). The play’s portrayal of Muslim-American relations in the post-9/11 world is a first for the region. Dr. El-Ariss will share thoughts and observations on the production and broaden the impact of the piece for the audience. And an optional post-show conversation with the company follows evening performances March 8, 9, 10, 11 and 15.

Northern Stage

Northern Stage presents Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” Feb. 28-March 18 at the Barrette Center for the Arts, 7 Gates St. in White River Junction. Tickets are $34-$59, $15 for students; for tickets, schedule or information, call 802-296-7000, or go online to www.northernstage.org.