It’s hard not to like them at first. Married couple Amir and Emily are the embodiment of the modern American Dream: They live in a well furnished apartment in New York City and have a happy marriage full of love and affection. Him, an absurdly wealthy litigation lawyer, and her, an artist on the rise with Islamic inspired works.
“Disgraced,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play at Seattle Repertory Theatre, follows these characters in their home over the course of a few days. Amir (Bernard White) is a Muslim apostate who has changed his name to fit in at the law firm and distanced himself from his faith and culture. His wife (Nisi Sturgis)is white, romanticizes Islamic culture and encourages him to reconnect with his roots. Amir struggles with his culture alongside his nephew Hussein, who changes his name to Abe Jensen (Behzad Dabu) in order to assimilate into American life.
At the crux of the play, Emily and Amir are joined by their married friends Jory (Zakiya Young) and Isaac (J. Anthony Crane). Jory is an African American woman and works with Amir, and Isaac is a white man of Jewish descent who curates art for the Whitney Museum. Identity plays a large role in the conversation over dinner, which escalates quickly when religion and ethnicity are discussed. The liquor runs dry while emotions slowly become charged and secrets are revealed.
The performance, directed by Kimberly Senior, is riveting. It is impossible to be distracted as Amir and Emily’s world disintegrates over the course of 90 minutes. Ayad Akhtar wrote the script in 2011 and magnificently weaves humor with anger and heartache. These multifaceted characters leave no person to root for; each of them points fingers at the other and reveals complex layers within themselves in the process. In one scene, the conversation escalates over fennel and artichoke salad, and Isaac angrily asks Amir if he felt any pride after witnessing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The tension in the room is palpable at many points — and for some, it can be too much to bear. During opening night, a man in the audience began yelling at the climax of the performance.
“Enough! This is ridiculous! Shameful!” he bellowed, interrupting a critical scene while racing out of the theater.
Tension lingered even as the curtains closed and the lights turned on. Some ticket-holders made their way to the front of the house to participate in what managing director Jeffrey Herrmann described as “Act II,” a discussion facilitated by Herrmann that allowed space to process the charged performance.
This informal discussion is happening after every show and is a critical component in engaging with the material. Many audience members freely voiced their problems with certain elements of the play, and one man who is Muslim expressed frustration regarding the stereotypes portrayed on stage.
“Disgraced” balances an extremely thin line between perpetuating and challenging clichés. Art is often used as a tool for self-reflection. Viewing characters on stage is a means in which we are able to see the flaws within ourselves and society at its worst. Its intention is to push boundaries. Clichés of Muslims are so abundant in the play and are used as vehicles to examine the ideas our culture perpetuates, but at what point is it dangerous to present these on stage? Many people in the audience expressed concern that if an “uneducated” relative or friend were to see the performance, they would walk away with stereotypes about Muslim-Americans and immigrants further ingrained in their ideology, thereby perpetuating the Islamophobia expressed in the production itself.
The clichés are also flipped: It is the people of color who are the corporate-climbing and money hungry individuals, perpetuating an American stereotype despite their race. Jory admires Henry Kissinger and her mantra leaves her choosing order over justice — a timely and poignant moment to watch, as we have seen so many African Americans fighting for the opposite: Justice in the face of an order that has not historically favored them.
The relationship between Muslims and Jews is one that we do not often see told in mainstream productions, nor is the analysis of religious text through a modern lens.
“Disgraced” is able to tackle these complex issues in a human way that is confused, stubborn and at times flawed — depending on your lived experiences.
This production also can be a brutal one for people of color. To watch the stereotypes unfold on stage is to relive the trauma of assimilation, internalized racism and more.
For people of color, there may not be the same tangible learning experience that comes from dismantling these assumptions as there may be for the majority white audience, perhaps because the characters do not clearly challenge the stereotypes enough to provide one.
“Disgraced” is a play that is only completed with time and personal analysis. If its goal lies in the unpacking of what was witnessed on stage, then it has done its job well.