Mirvish presents Ayad Akhtar’s provocative, award-winning play Disgraced in Toronto
Yesterday I had an exchange with an acquaintance about the infamous tweet by Black Lives Matter Toronto’s co-founder Yusra Khogali. He was quick to call “reverse racism” after I suggested that his not being a person of colour meant that he didn’t understand the context of Khogali’s tweet. It got heated. Issues like systemic racism and how it has manifested in contemporary power structures are increasingly being discussed, and that’s why a play like Disgraced feels so immediately relevant. It speaks profoundly to the political climate of today.
Disgraced, a fascinating, searing and unsettling new play by Pakistani-American writer Ayad Akhtar and presented in Toronto by Mirvish, tackles issues like politics, religion, Muslim-American identity and Islamophobia. Disgraced won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and will be one of the most-produced plays in North America this season. After seeing it last night it’s easy to see why Akhtar’s play has garnered so much acclaim and buzz. I think I’m still trying to catch my breath.
The premise is straightforward: Amir Kapoor (Raoul Bhaneja) is a hotshot Pakistani-American corporate lawyer in New York. His wife Emily (Birgitte Solem) is an artist with a WASPy upbringing whose work is inspired by Islamic imagery. An interaction between Amir and his culturally assimilated nephew Abe (Ali Momen) sets a chain of events in motion that puts Amir’s career in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, Amir and Emily host a dinner party for Amir’s African-American colleague, Jory (Karen Glave), and her Jewish husband—and Emily’s art-dealer—Isaac (Michael Rubenfeld). As the group of culturally-diverse, well-to-do New York liberals sits down to eat, polite dinner conversation turns into an intense, heated debate, which cuts to the very core of many of these characters’ identities.
What I love about this play is the way it grapples and spars: characters, identities and ideologies come to a head and clash. Nothing is sacred, no one is safe. It’s a no-holds-barred cage match leaving its combatants in a bloody heap at the end. There are no attempts to moralize and things aren’t wrapped up neatly in a bow at the end.
Amir, the character at the centre of Disgraced, is complex and so incredibly human, that is to say, deeply flawed and a product of his environment. Amir is a contemporary Othello or King Lear, who struggles with what it means to be a Muslim-American—even a non-practicing “apostate” one—in a post-9/11 world.
Bhaneja portrays Amir with the gravity required to anchor the piece but also with a sympathetic quality that really humanizes him even at his ugliest moments. While Amir vehemently denounces Islam, his downfall is a stark reminder that no matter how much we try to distance ourselves from that primordial part of ourselves that bends toward tribalism, it’s an innate characteristic that we can’t always rationalize away.
Director Robert Ross Parker eases the audience into the play with a relaxed pace and then slowly but surely builds up the tension until the theatre feels like a pressure cooker. At several points in the show the audience gasps collectively and by the end I felt as if I had been holding my breath for the last half hour.
Though Akhtar’s script can ultimately come off as bleak and nihilistic, I choose to see it not necessarily as a damning indictment of contemporary liberal Western society but rather a painfully honest reminder of the work we all still have to do as it shines a spotlight on the ugliness that we all hold deep inside ourselves.
Disgraced is also a reminder of why it is so important to produce the work of writers of colour and bring their voices to the stage. They bring new perspectives and ideas to the table. These ideas are important and our ability to discuss and debate them is important. Disgraced is unsettling, provocative, and at times uncomfortable to watch, but it is also incredibly thought-provoking and ultimately very rewarding.
- Disgraced is playing from April 3 -24, 2016 at the Panasonic Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto.
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m., and Wednesday, April 13, at 2:00 p.m.
- Tickets $39 – $89. Discounts for groups of 12 or more. Student Tickets $25 (one ticket per valid ID)
- Tickets are available in person at any Mirvish theatre box office, by phone at 416-872-1212 or online at Mirvish.com.
Photo of Karen Glave, Michael Rubenfeld, Raoul Bhaneja, Birgitte Solem, Ali Momen by Cylla von Tiedemann