'Disgraced': Director promises to push your (empathy) button

'Disgraced' in Denver Photos from the making of Ayad Akhtar’s play ‘Disgraced.’ To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. All photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

The DCPA Theatre Company has been asking some very big questions this month ranging from climate change to the foundations of our faith. And those questions only get tougher with the start of rehearsal for Ayad Akhtar’s celebrated play Disgraced, a controversial look at assimilation in contemporary America.

Disgraced is the turbulent cultural study of an American, Muslim-raised corporate lawyer who has rejected Islam and embraced capitalism while his white wife — an up-and-coming New York painter — sees the beauty and wisdom in the Islamic tradition. Steve Dow, writing for The Guardian, says the Pulitzer Prize-winning play broadly asks whether Americans must renounce their “other” cultural identities to gain mainstream acceptance.

“It will be both provocative and conversational – and that is just one of the beauties of this play,” Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson told the actors, artists, staff and guests who gathered for Tuesday’s first day of rehearsal. “What I really love about Disgraced is that it questions some of our deepest assumptions and beliefs about identity and culture and tolerance and intolerance and faith and religion.”

Disgraced opens March 31 and runs through May 7 in the DCPA’s 230-seat Ricketson Theatre.

Cast of Disgraced
From left: Director Carl Cofield with Benjamin Pelteson, Olivia Gilliatt, Dorien Makhloghi, Christina Sajous and Vandit Bhatt. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Carl Cofield, who last directed One Night in Miami for the Theatre Company two seasons ago, promises that Akhtar’s celebrated play will push your button: Your empathy button. That’s something he thinks is sorely missing in the national dialogue now.

Disgraced quote“We are living in an age where we have social media to spew out on, but we no longer have conversations with people from different walks of life who might have different points of view,” he said. “Hopefully this play is an opportunity for us to go on this ride together and have a dialogue afterward.”

He admits the play is asking a lot of its audience. “It is asking us to really look into ourselves and investigate our own prejudice and our own moral compass.”

And where better to do that than in a theatre?

“Theatre is becoming that rare place where we don’t go into ourselves and into screens, and into our gated communities,” Cofield said. “At the theatre, you are surrounding yourself around different people for 90 minutes. And unlike a film, you are an active spectator in the theatre.”

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Cofield says he and the DCPA have invited the Muslim and other local communities “to partner with us in how to tell this story so that it’s not a cultural appropriation story. We’re not coming in dictating the story. To me, theatre is at its best when the community has agency about what is happening on their stages.”

Discraced Carl Cofield Kent ThompsonCofield also took a moment to acknowledge Thompson, who is resigning as Producing Artistic Director effective next week but will stay on in an advisory capacity for six months. “I am deeply indebted to Kent Thompson for his wonderful artistic leadership here at the Denver, and for welcoming me and this group of artists,” Cofield said.

Here are three more things we learned at first rehearsal:

NUMBER 1The story is set in a spacious and tastefully decorated Upper East Side New York apartment designed for the Ricketson Theatre stage by Lisa Orzolek. “We decided that Amir probably doesn’t live in the penthouse – but maybe just the floor below,” Orzolek said. Some of the architectural highlights will include a sunken living room, finely displayed art, hardwood floors and high-end furnishings. “It’s uncluttered,” she said. “Everything is curated and it all goes well together.”

NUMBER 2Costume Designer Lex Liang believes that with any play, costumes help round out the characters. And in this one, Amir is a very specific character. “He wears $700 Charvet shirts – the shirt-maker of kings and princes and Kennedys,” Liang said. “He is a stylish but very safe, polished individual who is creating a persona that is very much like armor. Every morning, he walks into this demographic of people at work who are completely unlike himself, and yet he is trying to assimilate visually. So he enjoys clothes that allow him to blend in. He is trying to fit a very specific ideal that he has created for himself.”

NUMBER 3Actor Christina Sajous is back, having rattled the rafters with her powerful singing as Mary Magdalene in The 12. As an African-American woman in the law firm, she is, like Amir, “an other” in her work environment.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

: Ticket information
DisgracedIn 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.
Plays through May 7
Ricketson Theatre
303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

Cast list
Amir: Dorien Makhloghi
Emily: Olivia Gilliatt
Jory: Christina Sajous
Abe: Vandit Bhatt
Isaac: Benjamin Pelteson

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

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