After concluding its run at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced premieres on the West Coast November 6 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, with performances through December 20, 2015. The play will be at the Seattle Repertory Theatre January 8-31, 2016. Warning: This review contains some spoilers.
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Ayad Akhtar’s play about a Pakistani lawyer who forsakes his Muslim identity will be one of the most produced this season after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. People often talk about Disgraced as if the play has a big surprise twist that no one expects.
I expected it.
So, why was I crying at the end? Why did I sob audibly and leap into my friend’s outstretched arms while surrounded by mostly white elderly patrons in Chicago’s Goodman Theatre lobby? Why was I still crying when I went to sleep that night?
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I had heard about the original production when it first premiered in Chicago and failed to get tickets. This time, on the advice of several friends, I bought my tickets on the main floor. I wanted to see and hear everything.
It was during the infamous dinner party scene where Amir, despite all his attempts to reject and hide his background, transforms into a kind of sinister Islamic bogeyman. It felt a lot like the anti-communist or homophobic plays and movies popular in the 1950s and 60s. They look like us and may seem normal, but they’ll turn on you eventually.
For some backstory, Amir masterfully ingratiated himself into the New York elite. He was the trusted, hardworking corporate attorney at a prominent firm with Jewish partners, who treated him like a son. His white patrician wife painted landscapes and recently developed a respect and passion for Islamic art. He groomed himself impeccably and only wore perfectly pressed $600 Charvet dress shirts. On the occasion of the dinner party, his wife plans to serve pork tenderloin, while he and their guests sip Macallan, a high-end single malt scotch. Amir had it made.
It all unravels when his newly religious nephew, who idolizes him, asks him to help with the defense of an imam accused of funding terrorism. Amir does not trust clergy and reluctantly meets with the imam, who insists that Amir join his legal team. His wife, who has been researching the history and ideology behind Islamic art, joins in pressing him to represent the imam.
His presence on the legal team makes the New York Times, which portrays him as lead counsel. The “guilt by association” trope takes over. His partners start to look into his employment file: were your parents born in India or Pakistan? Amir insists it was all one country pre-partition and says India, but the current borders tell a different story.
We learn that Amir changed his last name to Kapoor (an Indian name, but not a Muslim one), obtained a new Social Security number, and essentially adopted a new identity. He stayed South Asian, but erased any trace of Islam from himself. This suppression comes at a steep psychological cost. In a fit of drunken rage, he admits that he was proud that Muslims were in a position of power after 9/11. The other characters are shocked, but the potential implication is that this is what every Muslim really thinks. That Muslims cheered on someone tough like Ahmedinejad to bully the West.
Amir, is that what you really think? the other characters ask aghast.
Because this unfolds as a tragedy, Amir loses everything for his apparent flaw of secretly really being Muslim. He gets fired, his wife leaves him, and he has been “disgraced.”
Amir loses everything for his apparent flaw of secretly really being Muslim.
Amir Kapoor hates his Muslim upbringing. His mother told him he had to stop his crush on a Jewish girl. He cites a verse in the Quran that men can beat their wives if they do not follow Islam. We see Amir become everything he despises. You grow to pity Amir as self-loathing, but also perhaps deserving of his downfall.
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Watching this, I found myself overwhelmed with sadness, fear, and loneliness. Like Amir, I am conflicted. I’m not a Muslim bogeyman, but more of a ghost. I’m invisible. I don’t belong. I’ll never be trusted or liked or loved. I’m not like them.
That feeling deepened when I entered the world of stand-up comedy. I started in what I considered a nurturing environment: a women’s only class. However, I found myself struggling to be authentic, because I realized I was in a white-identified milieu. They didn’t get me. I didn’t belong there.
How could I talk about being detained by Homeland Security without them understanding the pain and shame that comes from being singled out solely because of my name and appearance? How could they understand that I still cry when I think about my first day of kindergarten when I first realized people looked down upon my traditions? I felt alone and misunderstood.
Amir changed his name. For a brief period last year, I used my mother’s maiden name, Sultana, while performing. I could hide my comedy life from co-workers and anyone with access to Google. A side benefit of “Sultana:” it sounded mysterious.
Amir clung to cultural mores opposite to his parents’ homeland. I drink and eat whatever I want and have adopted an upper middle class lifestyle. For many years, I dated and befriended people outside of my cultural and religious spheres. Like Amir did for his wife, I may have satisfied an Orientialist urge or desire for someone “exotic.”
Only after a few failed relationships and subsequent therapy when I began to appreciate my own story and had a sense of self-worth did I choose my “own people.” I really came into my own after a “Namesake” journey back to India, but also realized that was “back home” for someone else.
I knew Amir would lose his place in his world, because he built it upon a fantasy…I have tried and failed like Amir.
I knew Amir would lose his place in his world, because he built it upon a fantasy. I fully expected that he would feel groundless. Despite all his attempts to curry favor and blend in, he would be discarded and disregarded.
I knew he would, because I have tried and failed like Amir. I have not been disgraced, but, after each failure to integrate myself, I am reminded that I am once again without a safe space.
I am displaced.
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