We live in a post-racial society as is thought and stated by the millennial sect, but, is it all talk with limited reality? Is this a dream yet to be fulfilled, a reflection of progress made when ethnic identities are viewed as a plus rather than a minus? From pulpits to podiums in various iterations, we are encouraged to embrace all humanity and cultural nuances; after all, according to US President Thomas Jefferson (1797 – 1801), America is the great experiment, isn’t it?
Does she still recognize human imperfection and that a tendency to abuse power is ever present in the human heart?
Pretty heady stuff and so is the smash award-winning stage play, DISGRACED, from its Pulitzer Prize winning author Ayad Akhtar. Akhtar won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for this engrossing and combustible drama that probes the complexity of identity, the place of faith in today’s world, and the hidden prejudices still alive in liberal society.
DISGRACED is playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through December 27; it runs at the Seattle Repertory Theatre January 8 to 31, 2016.
Amir Kapoor is living the American Dream—an Upper East Side New York apartment, Italian suits, and the promise of becoming partner at the law firm. But when he and his wife Emily, an artist influenced by Islamic imagery, host a dinner party for their friends and colleagues, lies and deception threaten to shatter Amir’s carefully constructed life of cultural assimilation.
I sat down with Ayad Akhtar at Berkeley Repertory Theatre to discuss Disgraced —
Sandra Varner/ Talk2SV: In your opinion what would you say is most misunderstood about Muslim religion?
Akhtar: I don’t know. I have a difficult time being a spokesman because I am as critical of my community as I am celebratory of it so I just don’t know how to sit in that place of speaking for [all Muslims]. I think a lot of times there is a sense that I may be writing to show that Muslims are people too or something like that and I’m not. Muslims are people. I seem to get it from both sides; the misunderstanding also comes from Muslims and I don’t know that I could speak directly to either side, if that makes sense.
Talk2SV: It does. In writing this play and others [you’ve written] that illuminate a Muslim point of view–do you see your role as a calling as much as a necessity to write about what you observe?
Akhtar: You know Faulkner once said that he found his little postage stamp when he was able to write about the (fictional) county that he came up with in Mississippi; the same can be said of Tom Drury’s imagined counties in Iowa or the fictional locale in Albany Richard Russo writes about. This (Muslim) is my community so I’m writing about human experience, American experience, I just happen to be writing about a group of people that happen to be Muslim in origin. I don’t necessarily think of myself as illuminating the Muslim American experience rather using that experience to write about the human experience, if that makes sense.
Talk2SV: In Disgraced, the dialogue and ensuing actions of the characters are arresting. Is it your intent to bring shock value within a dramatic arch?
Akhtar: No, it is not my intent to bring shock value; I am following the natural unfolding of the characters’ psychology. I am trying to find the most dramatically effective form of doing so–I didn’t make Amir do those things, he just does them. I think if I was after shock value, if I was somehow the architect of that–though that isn’t how it feels to me, I’m just pursuing. Again, as Faulkner once said, I’m just following my characters around and writing down what they say.
Talk2SV: When we look at the lead character Amir, and we hold a proverbial mirror up to who he is, there are a number of aspects that we find familiar. Any of us could be Amir having been shaped and influenced in childhood by cultural and societal opinions in this country; he is not foreign to us. Although, I think it’s easy to make him foreign because he is born of an origin that we don’t fully embrace, is that fair?
Akhtar: Yeah, I think definitely fair. Many times this comes back to me where some will say, ‘oh, I see the play is about how we cannot escape our roots.’ I don’t really know that that is what this play is about; I don’t know that that’s what the play is showing. I feel this play is showing a political environment that does not allow a man to leave his past behind. I think it’s about how within an environment that wishes to categorize him a certain way, he appears to be robbed of agency and the only act of political expression that he has is violence.
It is in that respect I think it mirrors the discourse that we’ve seen in this country with Malcolm X; that we saw with Faulkner’s character Joe Christmas in a Light in August; that we saw in Shakespeare’s Othello. I think the way this play is constructed is far more problematic and complicated than sometimes it is read.
I’ve often said that its’ concussive 90 minutes impact belies a complexity of design that may requires folks to spend time thinking. It took me three years to figure out what the play is and I wrote it; it took me three years to figure out what it was saying so I don’t hold it against anybody for not completely understanding. It is an interpretation that comes at me quite often and I don’t know that that’s what I feel that the play is about. I’m just the author; at the end of the day the audience is going to make what they will of what I’ve done.
Talk2SV: During your three-year trek to writing Disgraced from concept the completion, how did you evolve?
Akhtar: My understanding of the play evolved; at first, I didn’t know what it was and when it in ran in Chicago, I couldn’t understand what I had done. I couldn’t understand why Amir was saying such things. Then, I spent eight months working on it. When it ran at Lincoln Center, I had a little more perspective; I started to observe it, started to observe the audience and started to get a sense of how it interfaced with the audience. After Lincoln Center, and before it went up in London, it started to dawn on me what the play does. It constellates a kind of situation for the audience that they then have to deal with, so the play doesn’t really have a meaning, it’s an experience for the audience to grapple with. How they grapple with it often has to do with what they come in to the theatre with; there are lots of people l think, who walk away from the play feeling it reaffirms whatever ideas they have, liberal or conservative.
Ultimately that is not my preoccupation because I don’t see art as a way of getting meanings across.
Talk2SV: Why not?
Akhtar: I don’t think that’s what endures, I don’t think having a sentence that I have derived from an esthetic experience is what will mark me, I’m not marked. My fundamental experiences as a viewer are not the experiences of meaning, they’re experiences that go beyond meaning, that are emotionally multi-dimensional and complicated. They are experiences that mark me because they feel true and profound. Often, that language has a tough time fully grappling with the personal experience.
Talk2SV: The agency of language can be a barrier if it is the only utility we have to express what we’re feeling and thinking.
Akhtar: Right, but I’m telling you about making a work of art, not talking about writing. Sure, people say things and that’s great. I’m just talking in terms of my intention; I’m not trying to get a meaning across to the audience. I don’t think that’s enduring. I don’t know what the meaning of King Lear is, but, I know that King Lear is a powerful experience.
Talk2SV: Though it may have been relevant during its day.
Akhtar: Or not…
Talk2SV: Or not…it’s hard for me to embrace that this work is not purposeful. It does force us to hold a mirror up to ourselves–examine things that are either present in our mind or in our subconscious mind.
Akhtar: F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the hallmark of a fine mind is the ability to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time and still be able to retain the ability to function. Disgraced attempts to create a field where opposing ideas co-exist. I’m not saying one meaning is true and the other meaning is not, that’s not the issue. The issue for me is to confront the audience with the opportunity that they may not take–they may reject this opportunity—but, the opportunity is there to hold multiple points of view at the same time. When we do that something shifts within our consciousness that’s not meaning rather that is an experience.
Talk2SV: OK, that, I get. It’s not that I haven’t accepted what you’ve said; in self-examination of my conversation with you, I hope I’m not trying to force you into a political statement or thesis about what you’ve written.
Akhtar: No, I don’t feel that you’re doing that; I’m just resolute in my insistence that I am not offering meanings to the audience. I know that audiences take away meaning but I’m not offering those meanings.
Talk2SV: There are numerous elemental memes touched upon in Disgraced: there are comedic notes, there’s sexuality, there’s racial tension, there’s classism, there’s zealous ambition. Do you see Disgraced as a reflection of our current society?
Akhtar: I hope so in the sense that I’m trying to write about the world we live in. I hope that that world is reflected in the world we create on stage, yes, I hope so.
Talk2SV: Now that you’ve achieved the level of fame you enjoy to date, is there any amount of undue pressure, self-imposed or external, to prove yourself further?
Akhtar: Probably. I’m just trying to be the best writer I can be and that means I have to keep working on my limitations and try to get better at what I do. That requires a level of focus and clear-eyed about my failings that are sometimes painful, but, necessary. I don’t know what other people expect. I could never fulfill anybody’s expectations because I don’t understand what their expectations are. If I did maybe I would try.
Talk2SV: Let me attempt to frame this in a way that makes sense. Theoretically, do you walk through life with your arms to your sides or in an open embrace?
Akhtar: I think that sometimes in order to walk through life with an open embrace I have to make sure that my arms are down by my side.
Talk2SV: So, it’s your job to give me two opposing thoughts, is it not?
Akhtar: What I mean by that is in order to be able to remain open, to growing, to becoming the best writer I can be–that requires a certain discipline, focus and commitment. That’s what I mean by keeping my arms down by my side, but, by keeping my arms down by my side I’m creating a precondition for being able to be open hearted. That’s just my alchemy, that’s how I am made up, that’s the result of my struggles in the business.
I’ve been writing 25 years now and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve had any success. When you spend that long doing something, you take ‘the thing’ you do more seriously than the result. You learn to because you have to, otherwise, you can’t stay in the game; otherwise, you’ll internalize the rejection. I think that’s become a habit for me.
Your defenses have to be defenses that can sustain you and not shut you off from the world. You have to find the defenses that are supportive to help keep you open. That is what I mean by keeping my hands down by my side to remain open hearted.
Talk2SV: You were raised in Wisconsin. How did that region influence you?
Akhtar: I grew up in the Midwest and I feel like a Midwestern kid; I feel like somebody who doesn’t try to talk too much about himself, who works really hard and basically has a good idea about people. Someone that likes to experience the goodness in people; I feel like all those things are ‘Wisconsin’ in a way; I feel like I understand America. I feel like I understand Middle America in a way that maybe many of my friends in New York don’t. They complain about this or that and it’s like, ‘Guys you don’t get it, this is how people think in this country.’ Wisconsin… the Midwest is an important part of my background.
I feel like an outsider still in New York even though I’ve been there 20 years now. I know that I’m not; I know that I’m an insider but I feel like an outsider. I feel like I understand it but I think I’ll always feel not quite at home in New York even though New York has been very kind to me.
It’s (New York City) a hard place to live, it’s very fast and there’s a lot of sound, a lot of movement, a lot of people moving quickly–quick, quick, quick–a lot coming at you all the time. Sometimes it’s hard to get quiet in New York.
Talk2SV: As we conclude and come back to Disgraced, an aspect of the female characters appeared zealous, very zealous. Do you perceive them that way?
Akhtar: You know, it’s funny, I think everybody in this play is kind of that way, don’t you think? Everybody is kind of an extremist; Amir is an extremist rationalist and Emily (his wife) is kind of an extremist apologist. Isaac (Amir’s work colleague) is kind of an extremist liberal guy and Jory (Isaac’s wife) is an extreme pragmatist. Abe (Amir’s nephew) becomes an extremist of a different form; I feel like this play is the clash of contemporary extremities. That’s what it ended up being.
Talk2SV: When you are present at the conclusion of a performance, what response have you appreciated most from audiences?
Akhtar: That’s a hard question; it’s a play that tends to disorient the audience. I think they are in some version of shock at the end of this play. Some audiences are more embracing of that shock. I feel like the audiences that are more embracing of it is because there was some distance from it, I don’t know. I think there are always audience members that embrace it but I think there’s a lot of audience members that are very dissatisfied by that shock. They want to know what it all means, is it OK, is it not OK; is he saying that Muslims are good?
Of course, I’m not saying anything like that but the audience is bringing that question to what the play is about. The play is about people who cannot actually talk about Islam without it being something to be feared or not feared. It seems like the conversation we’re having around Islam these days is, should we be afraid of it? We shouldn’t be afraid of it.
That’s an animal conversation, that’s like a horse looking at a shadow and trying to figure out is that danger or not. It’s not a conversation, not even a human conversation, that’s an animal experience. We’re still locked in our animal reactions around what’s happening in the world as the people in the play are. This play in some ways dramatizes the very thing that ends up happening in the audience–I think people find that very confusing.
Talk2SV: Technology has been a means of connecting people around the world. However, do you think the level of technology infused in our day to day functions help us to be more open to each other or in some ways, isolates us?
Akhtar: I don’t know, what do you think?
Talk2SV: I have varying opinions about it. I like the access that it gives, I like the barriers that it erases but at the same time, I’m not pleased with the way it shuts down our sensibilities when interacting with each other.
Akhtar: I think that’s true.
Talk2SV: I’ve been so excited to talk to you.
Akhtar: This has been nice. It’s been a nice oasis in the middle of some difficult conversations that keep happening around this play.
Ayad Akhtar was born in New York City and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is the author of American Dervish, published in over twenty languages worldwide and a 2012 Best Book of the Year at Kirkus Reviews, Toronto’s Globe and Mail, Shelf-Awareness, and O (Oprah) Magazine. He is also a playwright and screenwriter. His stage play Disgraced played at New York’s LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater in 2012, and won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. His latest play, The Who & The What, premiered at La Jolla Playhouse in February 2014, and will be opening in New York at LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater in June 2014. As a screenwriter, he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay for The War Within. He has been the recipient of fellowships from MacDowell and Yaddo, as well as commissions from Lincoln Center Theater and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He is a graduate of Brown and Columbia Universities with degrees in Theater and Film Directing.