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Milwaukee Playwright Ayad Akhtar's 'Disgraced' Speaks to the Country We've Become

Jan. 10, 2017
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Photo Credit: Dan Norman

Ayad Akhtar’s wrenching tragedy Disgraced was the most-produced play last season in the American professional non-profit theater. This season it’s tied for second place. “It’s a wonderful and unexpected blessing and I take it in stride,” Akhtar said when I mentioned this fact in a phone conversation. “I didn’t have it for a long time,” he continued, “and one never knows how long it will last.”

Akhtar grew up in Milwaukee and Brookfield. His parents, distinguished Pakistani doctors, were invited to immigrate to the United States on grants in the 1960s. Ayad was born on Staten Island but the family moved here when his father was hired to create electro-physiology laboratories at UW-Milwaukee and Madison. Now a New York City resident, Akhtar still calls Milwaukee his hometown, regularly visits his parents in Elm Grove and speaks with deep affection for the area. His novel, American Dervish, recounts his growing up here as a member of the only Muslim family in the vicinity. He saw his first professional theater productions at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and hoped to join Milwaukee’s theater scene. Last year, the Rep made that a reality with a four-year commitment to produce one of his plays each year, the fourth to be a commissioned world premiere.

That relationship started last season with a brilliant production of Akhtar’s astonishing black comedy, The Invisible Hand. The play tackles the relationship between terrorism and the stock market, in particular, the fact that acts of terror can result in gobs of money for unscrupulous investors, enough to encourage the creation of conditions conducive to terrorist atrocities. Plays rarely change the way I see the world, although the potential for such transformation led me to a theater career. This play did that for me.

Disgraced, by contrast, is a contemporary American family tragedy but packs a similar intellectual and emotional wallop. The play premiered in January 2012 at the American Theater Company in Chicago, opened at New York’s Lincoln Center in October of that year and received the Pulitzer Prize for playwriting in 2013. The Rep presents it in a co-production with Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre and the McCarter Theatre of Princeton. The Guthrie’s Marcella Lorca directs a distinguished cast of actors new to Milwaukee.

A plot summary does Disgraced no justice. It lives from moment to moment in the shifting relationships among its characters as bad news arrives. The dialogue is exquisite. The focus, broadly speaking, is identity—the way you see yourself, the way others see you, and the way these views conspire to produce your life. Specifically, the play examines the weight of being identified as Muslim in America today. You witness the rage to which an honorable man succumbs when sufficiently disgraced in his own eyes.

The protagonist is Amir, the son of Pakistani parents, a well-educated 40-something married lawyer in NYC hoping to rise in his firm. He rails against the Islam of his childhood, names himself an apostate, calls the Quran a book about tribal life in a 7th-century desert and sees jihadists as people who want to recreate that society so their beliefs and practices appear sane. Amir’s Caucasian wife, Emily, is a painter inspired by Islamic art. She argues that Islam is a fundamental but unrecognized and unacknowledged part of our culture, the source of perspective in Renaissance painting and the inspiration for Dante’s Divine Comedy, among many contributions. Islam is part of our cultural identity, she insists; for Amir, it’s much more problematic.

I asked Akhtar if he sees the play differently since the election. “It seemed to know something about where the country was headed before I did,” he answered. “I can’t take any credit for that. It’s funny how it seems to speak more and more to the country we’ve become with the Muslim characters as kind of canaries in the coalmine.”

Because of inflammatory statements Amir makes in a scene of alcohol-assisted self-immolation, Akhtar was contacted by a number of news organizations for comment after Donald Trump began saying, insanely, that thousands of New Jersey Muslims danced in the streets on 9/11. He declined. “The thing I find remarkable is the lack of understanding that language can operate as irony in a fictional context,” Akhtar said. “People think that if characters say things, then that must be what the author thinks. Some very, very smart people think this.”

The Rep is providing rich opportunities for audience discussion at every performance including pre- and post-show talks with actors, professionally facilitated audience discussions, panel discussions by experts and intercultural dinners moderated by the InterFaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee. Akhtar will speak before the Wednesday, Jan. 18 performance and again at Boswell Book Co. (2559 N. Downer Ave.) at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21. Visit milwaukeerep.com for information on these events.

Performances are Jan. 17-Feb. 12 in the Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 E. Wells St. For tickets call 424-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com.

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