Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-prize winning play Disgraced, which tackles issues of race and religion with as much delicacy as a bulldozer, is easily one of the most apt plays to hit the stage this month. On its opening night at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (2015 Addison St.), as the characters sat down to a dinner party underscored by anti-Islamic sentiments and intolerance, news was breaking about devastating attacks in Paris allegedly carried out by the jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. But rather than turn the play into a crass, inappropriate affair, the contextual backdrop endowed the production with searing relevance and brutal poignancy. As patrons left the theater after the show, a few cried openly.
The story spins around Amir (played by Bernard White), a man who at the beginning of the play is inches away from the American Dream — or at least the superficial characteristics of it. He has a beautiful, blonde wife, Emily (the endearing Nisi Sturgis), a luxurious New York City apartment, and a closet full of crisp, designer suits that he wears to his job at a top-tier law firm. As the title of the play suggests, however, disgrace is on the horizon. Amir’s carefully constructed façade — his shield against a western culture that regularly conflates “Islam” with “terrorist’ — is bound to collapse.
At the outset, Amir is mindful of the tense relationship that many Americans have with Islam, and he is the first to vilify the Quran through a series of verbal lashings. When Emily — an artist with an affinity for Islamic art — defends the holy book at the booze-laden dinner, he tells her that it is “one very long hate-mail letter to humanity.” If drunken words are sober thoughts, Amir’s feelings should be sincere. But the relationship he has with the religion is complicated — much too complicated for his dinner guests to wrap their well-meaning heads around.
Amir’s moments of drunken honesty reveal self-loathing symptomatic of internalized racism, while also giving way to a smattering of other disclosures that his guests cannot reconcile. In the world of Disgraced, even the most progressive, well-educated social circles are scorched by unspoken prejudices.
Soon, a series of unsettling tete-a-tetes devolve into screaming matches that are at once riveting and appalling. Amir is no longer the congenial colleague of Jory (Zakiya Young), a Black lawyer who usurps him at the firm, nor is he the friendly acquaintance of her Jewish husband, Isaac (J. Anthony Crane). To them, Amir is “a closeted jihadist.” To his wife, he becomes something worse.
As the incendiary dinner conversation flames out, so do the relationships that once put a glossy finish on Amir’s American Dream. By the time the shocking conclusion is laid bare, it’s suggested that Muslim assimilation in a post 9/11 America is near impossible — regardless of your job, your wife, your home, your money, and most of all, your effort. For Amir, the futility is enough to drive him back into behavior he previously disavowed.
Akhtar, who will be discussing his play on November 19 as part of the Berkeley Repertory’s Page to Stage program, garnered national acclaim for his work exploring the Muslim experience in America. The author unflinchingly and relentlessly tackles Islamaphobia throughout the show’s eighty-minute run, and his other written works are known for doing the same. It’s unsurprising that Disgraced is the most widely produced play in the country this year — the delivery of uncomfortable truths and stimulating dialogue make it feel urgently necessary. Akhtar never skirts the depravities of both American and Islamic culture, delivering scathing indictments — and occasional defenses — to each.
Shrewd direction by Kimberly Senior, who also directed the show when it was on Broadway, makes for a bristling, fast-paced affair — much like any semblance of Amir’s success. To say that she’s produced an entertaining play feels inappropriate considering the sobering sociopolitical conversations unfolding on stage, but it is nonetheless smart and enthralling. Throughout, the audience waits for White’s next line, which was often followed by a gasp from the crowd. Supporting characters also delivered a trove of their own hard-hitting barbs — an especially prescient one regarding France’s contention with Islam sent chills rippling through the theater.
It’s in these sadder-than-fiction moments that Disgraced is at its best. Explosive from start to finish, it will likely be the most harrowing — and perhaps even best — play you’ll see this year.