Disgraced is not a fun night of theater, but it is definitely worth your time and money, even if you have to pay single-ticket prices. Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece focuses on Amir, a Pakistani American lawyer (played expertly by Bernard White) and his wife, Emily, who is a painter interested in Muslim art. They have a couple over for dinner–Amir’s colleague, Jory, and her husband, Isaac, who is a gallery owner and has the power to promote Emily’s work. Just the politics involved in becoming partners in a law firm and making your mark on the art world would probably be meat enough for a serious play. But Akhtar dug deeper into our post 9/11 psyche and made his characters reflect distinct backgrounds with a lot of cultural baggage: Emily is white, Isaac is Jewish, and Jory is black. Amir not only hides his Muslim background but rails on Islam to the point that Isaac accuses him of self-loathing. And Amir’s nephew, Abe, is a young Pakistani searching for his identity in a place where presidential candidates want to build walls to keep immigrants out. Lots of words are thrown out more and more carelessly as the couples drink away their day-to-day filters.
Despite its surface similarity to other disastrous dinner-party plays a la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Disgraced delves much deeper than Albee’s tale of academics and their discontented wives. Amir strives for partnership in his law firm and has seemingly assimilated successfully to an affluent New York City lifestyle. He has turned his back on Islam but isn’t able to shake its cultural hold on him. Emily appreciates Islam on an aesthetic level from a safe perch of white privilege. Jory takes her cues from Henry Kissinger, valuing order over justice. Isaac has his own secret desires and a sharp tongue. And Abe, a youth teetering toward rebellion, pleads with Amir to help a friend in a legal matter, but Amir is loath to get involved for reasons that become painfully clear by play’s end.
On one level Disgraced is about Islamophobia, but it’s also about systemic racism in general, cultural identity, family loyalty, ambition, domestic violence, and what it means to be human. It has no heroes and offers no easy answers. Because of the intensity of the issues raised in the play, the Berkeley Rep had a question-and-answer session after every performance. The night after the Paris massacre, the audience observed a moment of silence, no doubt stunned by the timing. You can’t watch Disgraced and then leave it behind you as you exit the theater. It’s going to stick with you not just because it’s beautifully written or profound but because it represents our present situation with all its confusion, fear, and hope.
I regret not getting this post up before the play’s run at Berkeley Rep ended, but this play has staying power, so it’s bound to return some day. It’s a play everyone should see.