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Broadway Culture Shock

Ayad Akhtar's smart, provocative scripts ask tough questions of American theatergoers, and they love him for it.

Broadway is not the ideal place to talk politics. Every night, hundreds of theatergoers clog the dazzling sidewalks of Times Square in anticipation of the type of flamboyant, highly regimented performance that has come to define mainstream American theater.

And yet, on a recent Saturday, four people stood on the stage of the Lyceum Theatre on West 45th Street discussing the sobering topic of Islamic fundamentalism. Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Disgraced, began its run on Broadway last October after sold-out houses in Chicago, London, and New York’s Lincoln Center. The play is set inside the Upper East Side apartment of Amir, a successful lawyer, and Emily, his artist wife. Emily is American, “white, lithe, and lovely,” and her work is inspired by Islamic motifs. Amir is an apostate Muslim who views Islam as a backward way of thinking. The couple invite two friends over for dinner: Isaac, a Jewish curator at the Whitney Museum who wants Emily’s work in his next show, and Jory, Isaac's wife and Amir’s law firm colleague. Amid talk of Knicks games and fennel salads, Amir is eventually called upon to defend his problem with Islam, setting off a conversation whose trajectory draws out the hidden prejudices of everyone involved.

There’s no correct way to interpret what happens in Disgraced. The play both is and isn’t a critique of American liberalism, an articulation of post-colonial grievances, and an insight into Muslim-American identity. “I’m simply trying to write about where we are,” Akhtar says. “Not about where we should be.” We are sitting inside a Hungarian café on New York’s Upper West Side where Akhtar sometimes comes to write. A first generation Pakistani-American, Akhtar grew up in Wisconsin surrounded by white kids. He says he always felt different but never mistreated. He decided to become a writer when he was 15 but realized he had a knack for thinking dramatically while doing theater at Brown University. His early work was concerned more with aping European modernist literary heroes than reflecting on his ancestry. “I didn’t think anyone would care about my experience,” he says. This changed when Akhtar was in his mid-30s. He began looking at his own community for inspiration and in 2012 wrote American Dervish, a novel about a young Pakistani-American boy growing up in the Midwest. Akhtar went on to pen Disgraced and The Invisible Hand, a play about the roots of Islamic terrorism that opened off-Broadway at New York Theater Workshop last December and received widely positive reviews; some critics found it even more politically provocative than Disgraced.

Gretchen Mol, Karen Pittman, Hari Dhillon and Josh Radnor in Disgraced on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus

Like Disgraced, Akhtar’s other work resists political consistency in favor of painting a complex picture of Islam. But this is not necessarily how every Muslim theatergoer sees it. One of Akhtar’s friends recently took his Pakistani partner and his 12 in-laws to see Disgraced. Not altogether surprisingly, the in-laws hated the way Amir’s character was portrayed, especially in the play’s explosive final act. But that was only their initial reaction: In the eight months since, half of them have changed their minds about the play, leading to heated dinner table debates. Akhtar says this is a common reaction from the Pakistani-American community, which often views his work as an “airing of dirty laundry.”

At one point in Disgraced, Amir argues Islam was founded in the desert by a group of tough-minded individuals who saw life as something to be suffered. Islamic fundamentalists believe the Quran is an extension of this, he says, not to be read as an academic text or an extended metaphor. “To be Muslim, truly, means not only that you believe all this. It means you fight for it, too.” This goes so deep that even a lapsed Muslim like Amir can forget where to draw the line. “It’s tribal,” Amir tells Isaac. “It’s in the bones. You have no idea how I was brought up. You have to work real hard to root that shit out.”

“In an environment where Muslims are already seen in a negative light,” says Akhtar, “there’s little capacity for them to see anything in work like this other than, ‘Hey, you’re making us look bad.’ ”

This resistance may have something to do with the lack of Middle Eastern and South Asian voices in modern American culture, the product of a long cycle of exclusion based on racial stereotyping, and more generally, a widespread reluctance to hear, read, or watch anything presented from a markedly different point of view. “The community I’m writing about is not used to seeing itself represented,” Akhtar says. He points out that the Pakistani-American community's feelings about education present their own problem, in that children are far less likely to lean towards artistic careers because their parents push them towards more "practical" ones. As a result, he says, there are many Pakistani-American doctors and lawyers but not many playwrights. “I find it frustrating sometimes that I am expected to, with every single work, address everyone’s experience. Maybe this next generation will look at something like Disgraced, see how well it has done, and see that as a viable choice for a career.”

Yet Disgraced is still something of an anomaly in the normally upbeat, Seussian world of Broadway. The play was first picked up four and a half years ago by Matthew Rego, a theater producer and founding member of the Araca Group (Wicked, Rock of Ages). “At the time, it was short—maybe 45 pages all up,” Rego says. “It was basically just the dinner scene. But there was something about it that grabbed you. Ayad’s writing was so passionate and intelligent and smart that we just felt like we had to have it.”

Danny Ashok and Hari Dhillon in Disgraced on Broadway. Photo by Joan Marcus

Rego took the show to Chicago, where Chris Jones, the theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, compared it to David Mamet’s play Race. From there, Rego negotiated a two-month run at New York’s Lincoln Center, where Akhtar remembers scalpers selling tickets for $1,500. Still, the show didn’t have a bankable star, so Rego decided to take it to London, where there’s less demand for that sort of thing. Then the Pulitzer happened. After that, Broadway suddenly seemed possible.

Disgraced deals with issues that have not been dealt with on Broadway before,” Rego says. “But that’s how these great things begin—just look at Edward Albee or Tony Kushner. Someone has to come in first and break new ground. Ayad is doing that now using the Muslim-American experience.”

Akhtar’s success on Broadway seems significant at a time when the capacity for deep thinking and the grab for public consciousness are often in conflict with each other. At best, Disgraced allows people to explore their own feelings about issues like terrorism, American dominance, middle-class privilege, and so on; at worst, it cements already-held beliefs. “There are people for whom these issues are so clear that any attempt to explore the gray area elicits a violent reaction,” Akhtar says.

On the night I see Disgraced, four women in the restroom line argue about whether or not that night’s performance should have been cancelled in light of the Charlie Hebdo attack, which had happened just a few days earlier. “That’s ridiculous,” one woman tells her friend. “Now is when people need to see something like this even more.”

Are Broadway audiences more easily shocked than audiences in Chicago or London? “People come in relaxed and ready to laugh and have a good time,” Akhtar says. “But suddenly it’s, ‘Wait, what did he say about Israel? What did she say about 9/11?’ ”

Rego tells me numerous theater companies around the country have already called to ask if they can put on Disgraced.

“Sometimes you’ll see a play or a musical, and by the time you get to the door you’re wondering where to get dinner,” he says. “But Disgraced stays with people. It gets people to talk, whether about the issues in the play or their own lives or the world. To have a piece of theater that creates this kind of dialogue and resonance is pretty unique.”

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