Perspectives: 'Disgraced' is about starting, not finishing, conversations

Photo gallery: The making of Disgraced in Denver:

'Disgraced' in Denver

Perspectives is a series of public panel discussions held just before the first public performance of each DCPA Theatre Company staging. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. 

Disgraced opens tonight, but
the conversation is only just beginning.

By John Moore

Senior Arts Journalist

Disgraced is the most-produced play in America right now for one very good reason, says actor Vandit Bhatt: “It’s a really good play.” If it were not, he surmises, “the DCPA and all those other theatres around the country probably wouldn’t be doing it.”

But playwright Ayad Akhtar’s provocative, Pulitzer Prize-winning story is one that ultimately – and perhaps intentionally – leaves audiences uncomfortable. And that’s OK, says DCPA Theatre Company Director Carl Cofield. Because he believes a fundamental responsibility of the theatre is to stage plays that sometimes upset us.

A Disgraced Perspectives 800“Theatre is supposed to lay important questions on the table,” said Cofield, whose production of Disgraced opens tonight in the Ricketson Theatre and runs through May 7. “There is no better place to ask tough questions than in a theatre. “If we’re not, then why even bother?”

As long as the most compelling question audiences walk away asking is not something so banal as: “Do they validate parking?”

“The Greeks asked big questions about how you deal with love, grief and treachery,” Cofield said at Perspectives, a series of public panel discussions held just before the first public performance of each Theatre Company offering. “Shakespeare asked big questions that we continue to grapple with to this day. So did August Wilson. Theatres are a safe space where we can all come together and devote our attention to one story for 90 minutes and hopefully leave asking questions about ourselves, and about what we just experienced together.”

Disgraced is the story of an American-born, Muslim-raised New York corporate lawyer and his struggle with his conflicted identity. Amir has rejected Islam and wholly embraced capitalism while his white wife — an up-and-coming New York artist — sees the beauty and wisdom in the Islamic tradition. The play bluntly asks whether Americans must renounce their “other” cultural identities to gain mainstream acceptance.

A Disgraced Perspectives QuoteBut Akhtar’s play comes along at a highly charged and polarizing time in America, especially given the President’s pledge to ban some foreign Muslims from entering the United States.

“We are spending more and more time on our telephones and devices these days,” Cofield said. “We get into our vehicles and we drive to our subdivisions where everybody looks just like us and talks just like us. We don’t have conversations with people who think differently from us. We just yell and scream over one another.”

Most important, said Dramaturg Heidi Schmidt: “This play is about starting a conversation. It’s not about finishing one.”

Toward that end, and for the first time in the nearly 40-year history of the Theatre Company, there will be moderated talkbacks following every performance of Disgraced led by rotating members of the local academic community.

“Some of these conversations might be uncomfortable,” Cofield said. “But important conversations are sometimes uncomfortable. And when we get to the other side of them, we’re better for having them than pretending the question does not exist.”

For Cofield and Schmidt, the conversation began months before the play even began rehearsals. “When I signed on to do this piece, it was explicitly important to me that we actively seek out members of the local Muslim and Islamic faith and culture, invite them into our theatre and how we can start a dialogue,” Cofield said. “How can we talk about this play and this experience together?” 

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Disgraced Lighting Designer Richard Devin, who was the longtime Artistic Director for the famed Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder, said he thinks it is important for the Denver Center to stick its neck out and offer audiences stories that will challenge them. “This is a play audiences want to stick around afterward and talk about,” Devin said. “They want to work through some things.”

While the playwright 

Disgraced Perspectives Vandit BhattWhile the playwright wrote Disgraced through the veil of Islam, “he could have told it through many other veils,” said Bhatt. “A lot of times it is looked at as a Muslim play, but the genius of it is that it’s really about a fractured person, and that’s what makes it universal and relatable.”

At the end of the very first talkback, following the first public preview performance of the play on March 30, a Muslim man made the point that the protagonist of the play was but one man and not a representative of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims. As this same man was exiting the theatre, another audience member stopped him and asked if he wished they Denver Center were not presenting the play at all.

“I am not at all against the play,” he responded, “because it will spark a conversation like the one we had it tonight after the play. And we need that.”

Actor Christina Sajous said the play is really much more than one man’s story. It addresses larger universal issues of humanity, violence and our common humanity – for starters.

“One of the biggest diseases in our world is racism,” Sajous said, “and if we don’t address it head-on, then we can never fix it. So why not address it through the story of Disgraced? We want things to be different but it has to start with us.”

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.
Through May 7
Ricketson Theatre

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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

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