When was the last time you caught yourself out for not checking your privilege? More often than not, we find ourselves becoming more and more aware of the distinct class and racial differences around us as such issues slithering beneath the surface are brought to the fore in our seemingly PC world.
Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer-Prize winning play takes a harsh look at such issues in America, centering around Amir (SRT’s own artistic director Gaurav Kirpalani), a Muslim-American lawyer who’s attempted to shed all traces of his Islamic identity, including changing his surname from the Muslim Abdullah to Kapoor. Amir lives with his artist WASP wife Emily (Jennifer Coombs), who conversely attempts to seize and capture the beauty of Islam ritual in her paintings. Their lives are seemingly perfect, the epitome of the American dream, as we open on them casually discussing religion in their gorgeous, spacious upper middle class home in New York’s upper East side, courtesy of set designer James Button.
Racial and religious persecution starts to rear its ugly head in the door when Amir’s nephew Abe (Ghafir Akhbar) bursts in through the door, and the trio debate the arrest of a local imam, who has been accused of financing terrorist organisations, leading Abe to question his identity and how he should portray himself to the public. Abe is nervous, worried, and so sheds his own Muslim identity in order to avoid persecution. While Amir is seemingly comfortable as a ‘white man in brown skin’, Abe simply puts it on for show, and still wants to pursue his religion. This sets the stage for the rest of the play’s issues, and foreshadows Abe’s later predicament.
Being the upper middle class Americans they are, the couple hosts a dinner party for Amir’s larger than life colleague Jory (LaNisa Frederick), a strong African-American woman, and her husband Isaac (Daniel Jenkins), with complicated views of his own Jewishness. All seems fine at first, and the two couples laugh and talk about inconsequential jibber-jabber as they munch on salad. But things quickly take a turn for the chaotic when the topic of the authenticity of the Quran is raised, and is even compared to a South Park episode making a jibe at the believability of the Mormon religion (leading to a few nervous laughs from the audience).
The tension begins to rise, and the smallest moment threatens to cause all hell to break loose as the conversation steadily heightens to a fever pitch. The foursome eventually lead to the topic of 9/11, and Amir for the first time breaks his all-American guise: he felt a sense of pride as he watched the Twin Towers fall, leading to the ire and rage of the other guests. Shots are fired and the play climaxes with shouts and spits as betrayals are revealed, leading to the complete breakdown of the dinner party, with tears and fears abound.
Amir is left a lost soul, his American dream completely shattered and unable to reconcile his identity with his chosen lifestyle. In the closing scene, the house is stripped bare as Amir is left alone in the empty room, with only one of Emily’s paintings left to contemplate, a portrait inspired by Diego Velasquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja, with Amir as the subject instead, possibly implying the metaphorical slavery Amir goes through as a price for being a minority in America as the lights fade to black.
It’s been a while since we’ve last had such an explosively controversial play hit our shores, daring to question our pre-conceived notions of how to approach race and religion. Disgraced deals with all that and more, delivering a fantastic performance from its more than capable cast, and in our current chaotic world, its messages seem more important than ever.
Ayad Akhbar’s script is utterly gripping and affective, and the audience is quickly swept up in the whirlwind of high-tension exchanges between the four characters, hitting hard and fast with the full shock treatment of how low one can go. Despite its difficult subject matter, it’s quite a relief that SRT has retained the script in its entirety, slapped only with an R18 rating. I urge you to see this play if you can, easily one of SRT’s best offerings this year, and rest assured, you’ll be left completely mindblown as the cast takes their bows and you leave the theatre.
Disgraced plays till 4 December at the KC Arts Centre, tickets available from SISTIC.