“For 300 years they’ve disgraced us! Why can’t they understand the rage we’ve got?!” Declares Amir, the principal character of Ayad Akhtar’s play Disgraced presently playing at the Avenue of the Arts Huntington Theatre Company in residence at Boston University beginning Jan. 8th through Feb. 7th 2016.
The Pulitzer Prize winning play and gripping Broadway hit is directed by Gordon Edelstein and written by screenwriter and playwright Ayad Akhtar. A graduate of Brown and Columbia Universities, Akhtar was born in New York City and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a screen writer, he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay for “The War Within.” Similar to the main character in his play, Akhtar is American born with Muslim roots and the play dramatizes and personalizes the tension between these two dichotomies while simultaneously infusing the scant yet much needed comic relief.
This play is a pontification on the contemporary Muslim American identity but more specifically, it is about a New York lawyer striving to climb the echelons of the corporate ladder while diminishing his Muslim roots and emphasizing his Americanized identity. When it is revealed during a dinner party that he was implicated in the papers as being part of the defense team of a man purported to be raising money for terrorism, buried tensions begins to surface, accusations are hurled and true feelings are revealed about race, class, religion and marriage; all the things you’re not supposed to talk about at a dinner table. It is unapologetically controversial and rightfully so. It is unsettling, emotional, uncomfortable, tense, and refreshingly NOT politically correct.
“There’s a long history of the West defining…Muslim[s]…In a post- 9/11 world, where… Muslim[s]…continue… to be defined [negatively]…we are called to defend ourselves, to define ourselves in opposition to what some are saying about us,” Akhtar stated regarding the play. Most of us are fully cognizant of the pejorative media portrayals of Muslims since 9/11 and the more recent political conflicts with ISIS or Islamic State. The play essentially serves as an educational and more importantly personal point of reference to which non-Muslims can articulate better informed opinions on actual Muslim religious beliefs, practices and socio-political point of view. Disgraced reaches a pivotal controversial boiling point when Amir roars about feeling “pride” the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. and referring to Muslims as being attributed the moniker of “The New Nigger”; all combine to make this play the more jarring; providing inarguably lively “water cooler”, “armchair” and “social media” conversational topics. “The play exposes the ways people think and their prejudices without casting judgement or forcing a simple point. It exposes, it does not preach,” said audience member Logan Nash in a post-show conversation.
“The conversation about Muslims in America is constantly evolving in tandem with the negative media portrayal of Muslims around the world,” this from an article by Lisa Timmel and Phaedra Scott. They go on to say, “In the aftermath of 9/11 hate crimes against Muslims in the US jumped from around 30 per year to 500.” Proving all the more reasons why the non-Muslim public, young and old need to be more aware of what it means to be Muslim in America. But Amir, the play’s protagonist, is not oblivious to what it means to take a stand in American politics, “If you’re young and not a liberal, you’ve got no heart, if you’re old and not a conservative, you’ve got no grain.” Well whether you’re got grain, heart or both, it would be a disgrace NOT to see Disgraced.
Jacques Fleury is the author of Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue. His collaborative CD A Lighter Shade of Blue with folk group Sweet Wednesday is available on iTunes.