I hope people don’t start referring to DISGRACED as “the Muslim play.” It is certainly about a Muslim and it certainly has lots of references to Islamic culture and examines lots of cultural issues around religion and politics. But I don’t want people to skip it if a “Muslim play” seems off-putting. It’s so much more than that and is a show that everyone who has experienced fundamentalism and dogmatism should see. There’s a lot to talk about.
Barzin Akhavan plays “Amir Kapoor,” a Pakistani or Indian-born attorney (depends on how you look at history as to which country he hails from). He’s rejected his Islamic faith. Meanwhile, he’s married to “Emily,” played by Bethany Jilliard. She’s as white and as blonde as one can be, yet her work as a visual artist is inspired and infused with Islamic perspective. And as the Jewish “Isaac” exclaims, “in a non-ironic way!” Isaac is married to “Jory” (Krystal Lucas), an attorney in the same practice as Amir. And Isaac just happens to be a guy who can help Emily’s art career move forward.
At the top of the show, we hear about an incident at a restaurant where Amir was discriminated against. And we hear that Amir handled himself well; in fact he almost always handles himself well. He’s a professional passive-aggressive office politician. Well-liked by his colleagues, his friends, and his family, he has mastered the art of avoiding controversy – until his nephew (Amin El Gamal) asks him to show support for an Islamic friend accused of terroristic activity.
Once Amir reluctantly shows up in the courtroom – and then in the newspaper – his life begins to unravel. But this is when the play finally kicks into high gear. And when Jory and Isaac come for dinner, the play’s best scene showcases the brilliant writing of playwright Ayad Ahktar as they discuss relationships, religion, and terrorism in a shockingly raw manner.
I think the opening night audience was more than surprised by the frankness of Amir’s honest and raw feelings. I won’t give away any of the best moments, but there’s a question posed to Amir that generated gasps from the people seated near me.
But I wasn’t shocked by his answer. I was a little relieved.
I grew up in a very conservative, fundamentalist church in a very Caucasian farm community. My own deeply rooted feelings taught to me from generations past about people and religion and culture are still there, even when both my heart and my head know better. I have had moments where ugly, terrible thoughts come into my head and I am repulsed by those feelings. But I know why they are there; Amir does, too. The insight that not only Ahktar displays in his writing but Akhavan portrays is the most refreshing and uncomfortably relatable thing I’ve seen on stage in a long time.
But it’s not pleasant.
This is not a happy, heart-warming story. But it’s an honest one. Maybe too honest. Amir tells so much truth there’s no turning back. And unfortunately for him, the people around him are not saints, either.
While this script has moments of brilliance, it is uneven. Director Lisa Porter handles the material without hesitation. But there are times when we get bogged down in discussions of art, which do not serve the story. Some of the dialogue reads unnaturally. And at times I felt the acting was too big for the intimate Shelterhouse space. That will likely improve as the run continues.
Despite these imperfections, I walked out of DISGRACED forever changed. I hope everyone else is, too.
DISGRACED runs through October 23rd in the Thompon Shelterhouse at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Tickets and more information can be found here.