Photos from the making of Ayad Akhtar’s play 'Disgraced' by the DCPA Theatre Company. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. 'Disgraced' begins performances on March 31. All photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.
At a turbulent political time in America, Ayad Akhtar’s celebrated play thrusts us from the frying pan into the fire.
By Sylvie Drake
For the DCPA NewsCenter
Political plays have illuminated politics for millennia, but recently the growing specter of worldwide terrorism — with its companion racism — have spawned a mutant variety of the species. I don’t mean worldly political events, though that too, as in John Patrick Shanley’s 2003 Dirty Story, an uncommonly personalized take on the Israeli-Arab conflict (staged by the DCPA Theatre Company in 2004). What I do mean is the interior effect of politics on the privacy of our living rooms, intimate dinner parties and family conversations — events that directly affect individuals, including, as in the case of Ayad Akhtar’s galvanizing play Disgraced, the affective politics of the American home and workplace, often more cutthroat than a battlefield.
Akhtar’s thoughtful dissection of five lives in Disgraced should give us all pause. True, the play was written well before the searing election that only deepened the cracks in our domestic landscape. But those cracks had been identified long before they had hardened into political reality. (Pictured at right: Ayad Akhtar.)
As the threat of terror in daily life kept spreading since that fateful 9/11, it was joined by its pernicious companion — fear. The subject only grew in the eyes and hands of playwrights, as well as in the sophistication of these writers’ approach. Lisa Loomer’s 2012 Two Things You Don’t Talk About At Dinner, which premiered at the Denver Center, may have started the ball rolling with its quasi-comic Judeo-Islamic conflict at a Passover Seder that devolves into serious indigestion. But Akhtar’s Disgraced goes a step further: It thrusts us from the frying pan into the fire.
Disgraced is a big deal. It won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was the most produced play by professional theatres in America last season. Akhtar warns that, in performance, the play should not sound like “Big Ideas” mouthed by actors — a common pitfall — and director Carl Cofield, who staged the DCPA Theatre Company’s production of One Night in Miami in 2015, was reassuring: “It’s [no] accident that the characters are drinking a lot,” he said. “Sitting on festering frustration and mixing in booze is a sure way to get at the truth.”
Things start out quietly enough. Amir Kapoor, a confident New York attorney, is posing in his upscale high-rise apartment for his wife Emily, a rising star in New York’s art world. She is painting his portrait. What could be more the picture of upper middle class success, comfort and bliss?
The session is interrupted by Amir’s nephew, an ardent young man who recently changed his name from Hussein Malik to Abe Jensen. Yet in a spurt of identification with a jailed Imam that Abe/Hussein believes is innocent and deserves to be released, he’s here to solicit his uncle’s help.
Like Akhtar, Amir is American-born of Pakistani/Indian descent and while he was raised a Muslim, he is neither religious nor political, and has outspoken disdain for the more stringent dictates of the Quran. He also has no desire to get involved in the Imam’s defense, since he knows the attorneys who are managing it and deems them very capable.
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Out of affection for his nephew, however, and thanks to his wife’s entreaties, Amir makes a small concession to Abe’s request. It alters the course of his life. One unintended thing leads to another, compounding damage at every turn. The end results are damning.
More than its topicality, what makes Disgraced absorbing is that, consciously or not, it adheres rigorously to the Ancient Greek definition of tragedy — when, entirely without malice, events take over and there is no deviating from the path of destiny.
No one in Disgraced does or has done anything consciously malevolent — no more than Oedipus did when he killed his father and married his mother. Some human frailty always exists, but there are no villains and no frauds here. Seemingly independent actions follow one another in an inexorable collision of fate and circumstance, multiplying and magnifying problems and ultimately rendering them fatal.
“I don’t agree with or condone [Amir’s] actions,” said Cofield, “but over the course of the play, we glean a little insight into his world.... He’s trying to win at the American game of life, but has been handicapped by prejudice. That resonates loudly with me. One of the greatest things about the theatre,” he added, “is that [it allows us to] feel empathy for other people.”
(Pictured above, from left: Actors Benjamin Pelteson, Dorien Makhloghi and Vandit Bhatt on the first day of rehearsal for 'Disgraced.' Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.)
The cast of characters includes Isaac, a curator who handles Emily’s artwork, and Isaac’s wife Jory, another upwardly mobile lawyer at Amir’s firm who happens to be African American. If the racial lineup is a little calculated, it serves a plot in which events take on a life of their own and overtake individual action. The grinding interaction of these five people hits and hits hard. It has been known to leave an audience gasping.
Read more: Director Cofield on pushing your (empathy) button
Disgraced is a potent theatrical event that raises the most persistently difficult questions; that is what theatre does best. It also offers no reliable answers. But it does show us, painfully, that rancor and division kill.
“As a black man and theatre-maker, my hope always is how can we begin the conversation,” Cofield said. “I hope the audience learns something about the characters and, more important, about themselves.
The word ‘theatre’ comes from the Greeks, he pointed out, and it means ‘the seeing place.’ “Hopefully, we can see something of one another, learn from it and … begin talking to [instead of] at each other,” he said.
No roads will lead back home, but some may move us forward an inch or two. There are, as always, choices to be made.
Sylvie Drake is a translator and contributing writer to culturalweekly.com, American Theatre magazine and is a former theatre critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
The DCPA hosted a community roundtable on March 2 gathering members of various faiths to talk about the Theatre Company's upcoming production of 'Disgraced.' The gathering was an opportunity to discuss otherness and sometimes false suppositions we make just by looking at someone. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.
Disgraced: Ticket information
In this raw new play, Amir has built the perfect life. But as a high-profile case and his wife’s art show reveal how little his culture is understood, their misconceptions become too much to bear.
March 31 through May 7
ASL and audio-described performance: 1:30 p.m. April 30
Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
Previous NewsCenter coverage of Disgraced:
Perspectives: Disgraced is about starting, not finishing, conversations
Video, photos: Your first look at Theatre Company's Disgraced
Video: A talk with Disgraced Costume Designer Lex Liang
Disgraced has been known to leave audiences gasping
Disgraced Director promises to push your (empathy) button
TED Talk: On the danger of a 'single story'
Meet the cast: Dorien Makhloghi, who plays Amir