How Muslims are “Disgraced” by the most popular play in America

Bernard White plays Amir and J. Anthony Crane plays Isaac in the Seattle Rep's production of Disgraced. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
Bernard White plays Amir and J. Anthony Crane plays Isaac in the Seattle Rep’s production of Disgraced. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

“Have you seen Disgraced?!”

“OMG, what did you think? I loved it!”

Seattle Rep’s recent production of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play has been lauded and raved — as it has been wherever it’s been shown, from American Theatre Company in Chicago, to Lincoln Center and Broadway in NYC, to the most recent productions at the Goodman Theatre, Berkeley Rep, and finally SRT.

The show also just closed in Boston and Atlanta, and is in its closing weekend in St Louis. It ‘s slated to open next week in Pittsburgh, later this month in Sarasota, FL, next month in DC, and this summer LA and Melbourne.

The show has been called “profoundly moving” (San Francisco Chronicle), “a dramatic triumph” (Huffington Post) and even “breathtaking” (Associated Press).

And since both the playwright and the main character is a South Asian American cis het dude who comes from a Muslim upbringing, just like I am, everyone’s been asking me about it.

So what did I think?

I’m fucking pissed.

The story of Amir, the lead character in this piece centering on a dinner party gone downhill, is one of the only South Asian American male roles in a play so lionized by the international theatre community.

And the implication at the end of the 80 minute play is that he is an anti-Semitic, 9/11 sympathizer, who can’t help but beat the shit out of his white artist trophy wife, based on his seemingly tribal upbringing.

And all this happens in the last 20 minutes, upsetting the rich, candid, super-interesting dialogue and back-and-forth the first 60 minutes built so gracefully.

At the time of this writing Disgraced is the most produced play in America, and Akhtar is the most produced playwright, according to American Theatre magazine. As such, this is not simply the story of A South Asian American cis het dude, but THE story of South Asian American cis het dudes.

Historically, black and brown people have been made to serve as representations of their race onstage, whereas white characters have been afforded individuality in this respect. Take Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams — an asshole white guy in those plays are just asshole white guys; not EVERY white guy walking down the proverbial street.

How is the audience supposed to get past that — the action on the stage — and get to a form of understanding that makes them question those very assumptions and affirmations? The Rep, I would think, serves to assist them to look in the mirror and question their preconceptions.

But are they successful? Not quite.

Their commitment to host a talkback after every single performance of Disgraced — which they like to think of as the play’s second act — is largely hijacked by the very same old, white, liberal progressive audience that is their bread and butter.

“All of the brown people at the show that I attended were visibly nervous afterward, retrieving their proverbial American flag pins.”

The style of the talkback I witnessed was largely one of echoes — two of the Rep’s artistic staff sit with microphones at the edge of the stage and repeat the loudest audience members’ reactions in a slightly-more-elegant manner — and never really address the issues at hand.

It’s up to those loud audience members to ask the tough questions and set the record straight for the implicated party (aka people who look like me). But once again, white people take up the most space, and are largely unregulated in their airing of their opinions and fucked-up affirmed viewpoints, if not entirely dismissing the contention altogether. (Later in the production run, I’m told the cast members of the show helped lead and answer talkback questions, but not when I saw it.)

It turns out, though, that this play attracts brown people to the audience, too, which makes for a very tense viewing. With talks of Islam whitesplained by the two white characters on stage, and the brown dude reinforcing and enacting the worst version of his culture, the brown people in the audience are — once again, for their sanity and safety — on the defense, forced to be educators.

That, in itself, is fucked. These old, white, liberal progressives, emblems of those who write our paychecks, live next door, and who patronize the same businesses, are our panel of judgment.

I gotta make sure they aren’t afraid of me and my pointy beard. Yet, they still flinch if I make too many quick motions. I’m on the defensive. I can’t pay attention to the play objectively anymore — I am implicated in the same way the lead character is.

All of the brown people at the show that I attended were visibly nervous afterward, retrieving their proverbial American flag pins they attached their lapels after 9/11, to show their unbridled commitment to this country, to which they have given so much, and sacrificed for.

Now, distracted by this eye-rolling position of condemnation of people who look like them — a role they have to play too much in this day and age — they feel betrayed by the playwright, someone of their own community.

“Finally someone who looks like me wins a Pulitzer Prize, and oh my it’s coming to Seattle”— imagine their reaction when Amir and Abe’s characters (the latter is Amir’s nephew) goes full-on radical, playing out these old, white, liberal progressive audience’s worst nightmares, and affirming it because someone from that same community has written it.

“I knew it! Those people are just raised that way, and they can’t help it.” (That’s an actual quote from an audience member after the show.)

The irony is that Amir is an apostate, one who has renounced his Islamic faith, and spends the entire play talking shit on Islam. Yet, somehow, the old, white, liberal progressive Seattle audience cannot seem to separate him from ‘his’ religion, and his skin color.

Even further, the dude is just a fucking asshole, plain and simple. He’s a mergers and acquisitions lawyer on Wall Street, living high and mighty on the upper east side of Manhattan, married to an up-and-coming white artist. He’s a dick to her throughout the play — projecting his own self-hatred and explosive identity crisis.

Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Zakiya Young (Jory) and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) in Disgraced (Photo by Liz Lauren)
Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Zakiya Young (Jory) and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) in Disgraced (Photo by Liz Lauren)

Really, he’s on some crazy assimilation mindset, which is not too far off for those of us in the audience that share his melanin. That’s precisely what made the first hour of the play so interesting — he changes superficial parts of himself to appeal to the people in power: old, white, liberal progressives. He changes his Muslim-sounding name, he doesn’t associate with anyone of the Islamic faith, and he has good reason for it: Because those same people in power control his livelihood, success, and ultimate fall.

The only other character in the play that has to make similar choices is Jory, his black female colleague, who he has to compete with to claim the ‘diversity’ slot in their firm’s partner roster.

The implication here is that the American Dream is so utterly unattainable for brown people that they must dramatically change and assimilate to their white counterparts that they end up selling themselves out, as well as their own communities.

“The playwright, too, must sell out his own community to get so deep inside the old, white, liberal progressive world that is the American theatre landscape.”

This is echoed, hella meta, with the play itself, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and beneficiary of such a wide variety of stages on which to present itself. The playwright, too, must sell out his own community to get so deep inside the old, white, liberal progressive world that is the American theatre landscape, by pandering to white America’s deepest, darkest, most hateful of feelings.

Well, just like Abe tells Amir in the last few minutes of the play, his own community sees through his self-hatred and pandering misrepresentation. We in that community end up respecting him less. But white America, all the more.

During the play’s run in Seattle, I would have expected to hear it called out for its (un)timely irresponsibility, blatant use of shock value, and ultimate dangerousness in the minds of the typical Seattle thespian audience.

No such potentially scathing review of this content manifested. And I simply cannot trust the old, white, liberal progressive Seattle theatre audiences to do the work that this play asks of its viewers. Too many will leave the theatre affirmed in the same prejudices they walked in with — that ALL brown, Muslim-looking people are anti-Semitic, closet terrorists, who are prone to beat women.

Well, I can’t let this stand. Very much a reluctant reviewer, this record of this dissent needs to exist, and it needs to come from a South Asian American that grew up with Islam. Think of it as my very own American flag pin, attached firmly to my lapel.

A couple of organizations are raising the stakes for a diverse and inclusive theatre season this year in Seattle: Spectrum Dance Theatre’s #RACEish season, which just closed the first two shows of its four-show season, focuses on failed race relations and art as transcendent in these relations; and Intiman’s 2016 summer season will only present works by black, female dramatists. I can only hope they can represent the voices of the implicated groups with grace and buy-in from those communities.

3 Comments

  1. I don’t disagree with you, though I think we read the play differently. I see the play as a depiction of the dangers of “assimilation” and the violence that is a symptom of that assimilation (ie white supremacy). Whiteness is the silent sixth character in the play, and I wish Akhtar did more to highlight it. I don’t think the play depicts Muslims as closet anti-Semites or terrorists, but it does depict the latent hostility engendered in POC who try to pass, and who have to destroy their identities to succeed in an inauthentic, brutal American world.

  2. “And the implication at the end of the 80 minute play is that he is an anti-Semitic, 9/11 sympathizer, who can’t help but beat the shit out of his white artist trophy wife, based on his seemingly tribal upbringing.”

    No.

    That’s not the implication at all. I didn’t leave the theater thinking any of those things. I found the character very sympathetic. He’s NOT anti-semitic and he’s not a 9/11 sympathizer. Amir is brutally honest how he feels about certain things and while he might hate the Jewish character in the play (as he should; that character slept with his wife…) there’s nothing to indicate he hates all Jews. AS for the 9/11 sympathizer accusation….bullshit. Amir expresses an idea many people had who were unhappy with how the US behaves in the world at large. No sane person is “happy” that the horrors of 9/11 happened but I think he’s just saying what many people felt at the time….that the terror of 9/11 might shock America out of its sense of complacency and self-entitlement. Not that “America deserved it” but “America needs to feel what the rest of the world feels like when being attacked”. Sadly, that didn’t happened; 9/11 just fueled more jingoism and hatred.

    As for the brutality…I thought it was a bit over the top as directed. But, I didn’t hate Amir for it and he’s honestly horrified by what he’s done. He’s not a “wife beater”. And, I didn’t read it as “tribal”. It’s situational violence.

    Honestly, Amir is the ADMIRABLE character in the play. He does awful things but only after he’s provoked. The other three characters are the “villains” who do the provoking and are the less than admirable ones…they’re all phony poseurs. I think Akhtar’s script is very clear about that….Amir is a good, albeit flawed man pushed to do some not so good things by the actions of others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.