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Racial and Culture Clashes Destroy a Dinner Party and More in Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” at PRC

Nicole Gabriella Scipione and Rajesh Bose star as Emily and her husband, Amir, in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of "Disgraced" (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Nicole Gabriella Scipione and Rajesh Bose star as Emily and her husband, Amir, in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “Disgraced” (photo by Jon Gardiner)

The influence of Islamic art and culture is very much more prevalent in Western arts and culture than we may often realize, and this has been going on since before the Crusades began, when the Western and Islamic worlds began intercourse. PlayMakers Repertory Company’s 2015-16 main-stage season opener, Disgraced, was written by Ayad Akhtar, an American of Pakistani extraction, who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for it.

The play amply demonstrates how deeply the antipathies and central distrust of “others” persists, well beyond the façade of cultural acceptance that we take as commonplace in our “enlightened society.” Among the profound devices that Akhtar uses are the explosion of several memes of daily American taboos into sudden experiences that embody their stinging presence in our lives. He skillfully lightens some of the harsher moments by preceding them with deft touches of delightful humor as well as moments of heart-warming tenderness. He also begins the play early, by creating a pre-story, which the audience should take note of, as the last of the house is being filled.

In his program notes, PRC guest director Shishir Kurup states that the show “airs the dirty laundry of Faith while being critical of false and easy liberalism; the kind that wants to see only the good ….” He has selected a fine cast to do this, and moves them around in ways that enhance their characters, giving Emily a languid flow in contrast to Amir’s consistent nervous scoot. Abe has a slumping introversion; Jory a bold, straightforward stride; and Isaac a fitting presumptuousness and intrusiveness. Kurup is also a master of pauses, as when the silence falls upon the dinner table and Isaac fills it with neutral humiliated business, and when Amir sits grasping for self-control and words for what seems like a full minute.

"Disgraced" stars (from left) Nicole Gabriella Scipione as Emily, Rajesh Bose as Amir, Benjamin Curns as Isaac, and Rasool Jahan as Jory (photo by Jon Gardiner)

“Disgraced” stars (from left) Nicole Gabriella Scipione as Emily, Rajesh Bose as Amir, Benjamin Curns as Isaac, and Rasool Jahan as Jory (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Rajesh Bose brings a wonderful self-consciousness to his character Amir. We see Amir’s underlying fear, but it takes a while for us to understand it, because he remains so in control. When he finally loses it, it is abrupt and totally unexpected, and almost too real, and yet he also compels us to sympathize with him in the end.

Amir’s artist wife Emily is portrayed with grace and the sense of care for a relationship in duress by Nicole Gabriella Scipione. Her sprightly upbeat manner is supported by a sturdy resolve.

Benjamin Curns plays Isaac, a curator for the Whitney and a world traveler, a promoter of contemporary art with an ear to the wind. Curns turns in an admirable performance of a character who is not particularly likable, and at one point startles us with his crudity.

Benjamin’s wife Jory is played by Rasool Jahan, who was exquisite in Wit at The Justice Theatre Project in 2014. She brings a subtle self-confidence to her role, a strength that lies within, and a realistic concern for other people.

Samip Raval (left) and Rajesh Bose star as Abe and Amir in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s presentation of "Disgraced" (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Samip Raval (left) and Rajesh Bose star as Abe and Amir in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s presentation of “Disgraced” (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Amir’s nephew Abe, who has been trying to pass as American, reverts to his Pakistani name of Hussein when he becomes an outspoken defender of an alleged Islamic terrorist. He is brought to us by Samip Raval, who makes us uncomfortable for his character as he is radicalized.

The technical aspects of the show are outstanding. The huge living room of Amir and Emily’s apartment, with its parquet floor, rich Oriental rug, and plain furniture define a contrast that is perfect for the contrast that will be enacted within it.

Over the large fireplace hangs an abstract, geometric, Islamic-influenced painting done by Emily. Scenic designer Nephelie Andonyadi created this stark set, which becomes a simple boxing ring.

Bruno Louchouarn designed and composed the music that helped to tell the story, especially the soft floating piano notes that were particularly effective in evoking tension and release.

This is a show that will surely provoke much conversation in the gatherings around the area in the next several months. It was amazing to notice the absolute rapt silence in the audience last Saturday night, except for the several places where laughter was the needed response.

SECOND OPINION: Sept. 16th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/disgraced/Event?oid=4716854; and Sept. 15th Chapel Hill, NC WCHL/Chapelboro interview with director Shishir Kurup, conducted by Aaron Keck: http://chapelboro.com/news/arts/playmakers-opens-mainstage-season-with-disgraced/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 16th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2015/09/ayad-akhtars-pulitzer-prize-winner-disgraced-opens-prcs-2015-16-main-stage-season-sept-19th/.)

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents DISGRACED at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22-25, 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, prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/single.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), prcgroups@unc.edu, 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/.

VENUE: http://playmakersrep.org/aboutus/paulgreen.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.

NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.

NOTE 2: There will be an All-Access Performance performance, with sign-language interpretation and audio description by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 22nd.

NOTE 3: There will be FREE post-show discussions with members of the creative team following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 23rd, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 27th, performances.

NOTE 4: 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 harver@email.unc.edu.

NOTE 5: 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 6: 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.

OTHER LINKS:

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:

Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on his website: http://www.chuckgalle.com/. Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori review theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Boom! Magazine and here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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