Hard-hitting Akhtar play returns to the Toronto stage
The thought-provoking, bear-poking, conversational fire-stoking play DISGRACED (Hope and Hell Theatre Co., presented by Mirvish Productions) returns to the Panasonic Theatre. Previously produced in Mirvish’s 2016-17 season, this sprawling stage is stacked with 80% of the original cast, and 100% of the hard-hitting political theatre we all need right now.
Playwright Ayad Akhtar verily demolishes politeness in this play. This script is rife with extremely high stakes that include resonant and at times violent circumstances around race, religion, and politics.
The main plot revolves around an interracial married couple living in Manhattan. Amir (Raoul Bhaneja) is Pakistani-American (though pretending to be of Indian descent at work) and Emily (Birgitte Solem), an artist with an interest in Islamic art, is white. Their friends, a Jewish man named Isaac (Alex Poch-Goldin) and an African-American woman named Jory (Karen Glave), are coming to dinner. As the four sit down to dinner, their seemingly loving, functional relationships begin to fall apart under the spectre of racial tension–particularly as they grapple with Islamophobia, anti-semitism, self-identity, and both external and internalized racial prejudices.
Walking into the theatre and seeing the huge yet unobtrusive set by designer Sue LePage, I had great expectations off the hop. This set primed me for high society: a home of deep linen couches, a wide-set marble fireplace, a balcony the size of some people’s entire bachelor pads, and high walls punctuated with massive artworks, was completed with the cool, suave sounds of lounge jazz music.
Even the use of colour feels calm and collected: grey-beige walls, soft blue accents, a conservative-classic taste in deco. The only dominating colour here comes in the form of a solid black door.
I fixate on these elements because of the great contrast they create when our cast of diverse dinner partiers arrive and shortly come crashing down the class ladder into what the play describes as “primal” confrontations.
The performances were boldly compelling by all. Every actor gave me a reason to follow them across the stage, performing with honesty and guts. I was deeply immersed and frequently agape.
Given this play’s repeated reference to various so-called “tribal behaviours”, there was one lapse in connection to this animalistic element to me, specifically on the sexual plane. Any sexual behaviour onstage was devoid of chemistry, let alone the gutting intensity that everything else in the play is bursting with. I was unfortunately quite unsold by every sexual relationship depicted.
Despite this one area where chemistry was lacking, it didn’t detract that much from the overall potency. The audience chuckled, gasped, and squirmed through the play’s controversial events as the dinner party, which had started so amiably, slowly dissolved into explosions of animosity that leave each of the characters hopelessly shaken.
With a script this brave, post-show discourse is inevitable. In fact, post-show discourse is included with the ticket. A Q & A talkback with the cast runs after every show, and as leading man Raoul Bhaneja put it: “This is the first act in a 3-act show.” The second and third ‘acts’ are meant to occur on your drive home, in your living room, and in the conversations this piece sparks.
The bottom line: invite everyone you know to see this with you. No matter your politics, race, religion, or livelihood, there are lessons, truths, and most of all, questions, here. A worthy, impactful show.
- DISGRACED plays at the Panasonic Theatre (651 Yonge Street) until November 26.
- Shows are at 8pm Tuesday through Saturday, with 1:30pm matinees Wednesday, and 2pm matinees Saturday and Sunday.
- There are no performances November 21-24.
- Tickets range in price from $39-$92, with many nights selling fast.
- Tickets may be purchased online.
Audience Advisory: DISGRACED may be inappropriate for children 12 and under. Mature language & adult situations. Please note that an instance of explicit domestic violence against a woman occurs.
Photo of Karen Glave and Raoul Bhaneja in DISGRACED. Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.