Religion. Politics. The ugly side of our deeply-ingrained cultures. These are topics that most people and far too many playwrights steer clear of. However, that is certainly not the case in Ayad Akhtar’s multi-layered, self-reflective Disgraced, onstage now through Playmakers Repertory Company under the skilled direction of Shishir Kurup.
When the curtains open on Disgraced, audience members are faced with perky, optimistic Emily (Nicole Gabriella Scipione), who is sketching a portrait, modeled after The Portrait of Juan de Pareja(talk about subtext!), of her Muslim husband, Amir (Rajesh Bose), with whom she appears completely enamored. Their life, at first glance, seems like a happy one, the kind that “diverse” advertisements and stock photos love to promote. As the play moves on, however, deep rifts in this small family and in the inner worlds of the characters themselves start to appear.
Amir is deeply resentful of his Islamic heritage, bemoaning the violent nature of the Qur’an and the inherent racism and stereotyping he claims run rampant among his people. Emily, on the other hand, is in love with the religion, and, though she does not practice it herself, celebrates its beauty through her art. Despite their different views and the fact that Amir is so deeply ashamed of his lineage that he lies to his Jewish bosses about his ethnic background, the two seem to be a fairly happy couple…at least until Emily persuades her husband to provide legal counsel to an unfairly-accused Muslim man. It is then that Amir is “outed” and that his world begins its downward spiral.
At its heart, Disgraced is a true tragedy, one in which a man has his life completely turned upside down and eventually faces the ultimate punishment for trying to stuff down who he is. However, there is much more going on here, as revealed when Emily and Amir invite over another interracial couple, Jory (Rasool Jahan) and Isaac (Benjamin Curns), for dinner. Heated words fly, and this seemingly liberal, seemingly happily-diverse group of friends lets out embittered biases, prejudices, resentments, and feelings that must have been there all along, floating just underneath the surface, unheard but apparently deeply felt by all.
The play is heavy, full of tough material that will make introspective audience members consider their own biases, their own faults and shortcomings. Whether they are like Emily- all too willing to see the good in everything and ignore the bad- or like Amir, afraid of embracing their backgrounds but still deeply affected by them- there is a character here, or some mix of characters, for each viewer to identify with, and through that identification, viewers can ask tough questions of themselves and those in their lives.
This subject matter makes it excellent fodder for classroom discussions and heated conversations, though anyone, of any age, should have something to think about after leaving this show. And, though the subject matter is difficult and intense, it is still entertaining. The characters are fully realized and intriguing, and each is made even more real through the fine portrayals of the actors. Bose creates a Rajesh who is intense, relatable, and at times, detestable in this tough role, and Scipione turns Emily into an imperfect idealist whom everyone can sympathize with.
The tight staging adds to the tension and intimacy of this show, and Geoff Korf’s lighting design perfectly matches mood, tone, and time every step of the way. Also nice here is Nephelie Andonyadis’ yuppified apartment set, which alludes to a range of cultures and backgrounds, much like the show itself does.
In short, Disgraced is not an easy watch, but it is a brave and necessary one.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents DISGRACED at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24 and 25, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29-Oct. 2, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 3, and 2 p.m. Oct. 4 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $15 and up ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), with discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel, except $15 (general admission) Tuesday Community Night performances.
BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/single.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), email@example.com, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales. SHOW: http://www.playmakersrep.org/disgraced.
NEWS RELEASE: http://www.playmakersrep.org/media/story.aspx?id=be53dfa2-d6c3-4500-b68f-c4ce7ddb5f0f.
PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.
PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.
NOTE 2: There will be a FREE post-show discussion with members of the creative team following the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 27th, performance.
NOTE 3: From 2 to 6 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 27th, in the Center for Dramatic Art, the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations will sponsor a FREE performance of the play and program for secondary educators entitled “Disgraced: A Workshop for Educators on Muslim American Identities.” Secondary educators may register for this FREE play performance and workshop by e-mailing Emma Harver at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NOTE 4: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 3rd (for more information, click http://playmakersrep.org/outreach/allaccess/opencaption).
NOTE 5: The Lucy Daniels Foundation and the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society will sponsor FREE post-show “Mindplay” discussions after the 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3rd, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4th, performances.
Disgraced (2012 Chicago, 2012 Off-Broadway, 2013 West End, and 2014 Broadway play): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/47355/disgraced (Samuel French), http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=497476 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disgraced (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Ayad Akhtar (playwright): http://ayadakhtar.com/ (official website), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=494629 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1628370/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/AyadAkhtar (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/ayadakhtar (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayad_Akhtar (Wikipedia).
Shishir Kurup (Los Angeles, CA director): http://www.shishirkurup.com/ (official website), http://www.playmakersrep.org/performances/embed_artist.aspx?id=87289431-4aa7-4388-a1b7-431ff3aba434 (PlayMakers Rep bio), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0476094/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/shishir.kurup (Facebook page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shishir_Kurup (Wikipedia).
EDITOR’S NOTE: Susie Potter is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer and editor. She is a 2009 graduate of Raleigh’s Meredith College, where she majored in English. She holds graduate degrees in teaching and American literature from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. In addition to her work for Triangle Arts and Entertainment, she is an award-winning author of short fiction. Her works have appeared in The Colton Review, Raleigh Quarterly, Broken Plate Magazine, Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, the Chaffey Review, and Existere. To read all of Susie Potter’s Triangle Arts and Entertainment articles and reviews, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/susie-q/. To read more of her writings, click http://www.susiepotter.com and http://www.myspace.com/susiepotter.