Theater Review: ‘Disgraced’ at Northern Stage Offers No Easy Answers

  • Amar Srivastava, left, and Olivia Gilliatt appear in a scene from Northern Stage's production of "Disgraced." (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Kanwar Singh, left, and Amar Srivastava appear in a scene from Northern Stage's production of "Disgraced." (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Olivia Gilliatt appears in a scene from Northern Stage's production of "Disgraced." (Rob Strong photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, March 08, 2018

There’s only one takeaway from Disgraced — Ayad Akhtar’s tense, divisive, Pulitzer Prize-winning play, currently in production at Northern Stage — of which I am absolutely sure, and it’s this: Nothing ruins a nice fennel-and-anchovy salad like bad race relations.

If this sounds arch, it isn’t meant to be. The play, which opens in the late summer of 2011, takes place in the Upper East Side apartment of a well-to-do interracial couple, and centers around a train wreck of a dinner party with another well-to-do interracial couple. Over the course of the play, which is roughly 80 minutes without intermission, none of its characters will get off scot-free. Neither will we.

The domestic setting fits nicely with the intimate feel of the Barrette Center for the Arts, where director Carol Dunne, who is also producing artistic director at the White River Junction theater company, has built a stylish but tenuous life for Emily and Amir Kapoor. Amir (Amar Srivastava) is a first-generation, Pakistani-American lawyer who has changed his name and renounced his Muslim upbringing in a bid to appeal to those in a position to elevate him. Emily (played by the irrepressible Olivia Gilliatt, a Northern Stage veteran and Dartmouth College alum), is a white artist whose career has taken a promising if culturally-appropriative form: She’s started to draw upon thousand-year-old Islamic imagery, much to Amir’s discomfort.

Cracks begin to show early on, when Amir — at the urging of Emily and Abe (Kanwar Singh), Amir’s nephew and vibrantly-portrayed foil — reluctantly agrees to express support for a local imam who’s been accused of raising money for terrorist groups. Emily is appalled at Amir’s callousness in being unwilling to help the imam; Amir is mortified when a Times story exaggerates his role in the case, bringing him under race-related scrutiny at work.

Not long after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, they throw a dinner party. A small one, just for Emily’s art dealer Isaac, who is Jewish, and his wife, Jory, a black woman who works at Amir’s law firm. Off-Broadway veteran Sid Solomon and Broadway veteran Dan’yelle Williamson in their Northern Stage debuts, aptly hint at the unspoken strains in the couple’s marriage — an “I told you so” here, a subtle put-down there — without sacrificing the fun, light-hearted energy they bring to the early dinner scene. Williamson is a particularly droll and magnetic stage presence.

The conversation begins sparklingly — they’re clearly all smart, witty people — but after the booze begins to flow, things quickly head south with a slew of increasingly tone-deaf remarks. The beats of silence after the most cringe-worthy comments are a great touch by Dunne; they (the comments and the silences) serve as an uncomfortable but important reminder of the biases we like to think we don’t have, but which reveal themselves under the right circumstances. Isaac, bizarrely, keeps comparing Islam to Mormonism; Jory has some choice words to say about “the veil”; Emily keeps “whitesplaining” the Quran for her husband, who through all his scotch-induced hostility is honestly trying to articulate why he severed himself from his roots and why he can never really sever himself from his roots.

Prejudices are exposed. So are hurtful secrets the characters have been keeping from one another. Amir, by the end of the night, becomes the monster that so many Americans might assume him to be.

Understandably, many Muslim-American audiences have absolutely despised this play, not only because of Amir’s anger and ultimately cruelty, but because this anger and cruelty is one of the only representations of Muslim men that most American audiences have seen, particularly on the stage.

“(H)istorically, black and brown people have been made to serve as representations of their race onstage, whereas white characters have been afforded individuality in this respect,” writes Ashraf Hasham, reviewing a production of Disgraced at the Seattle Repertory. Because Muslim representation is so scarce, Hasham argues, Disgraced is not a story of a Muslim-American man, “but THE story” of Muslim-American men.

Amir Kapoor is also locked into this paradox. The other characters, especially the sincere but naive Emily, want desperately for him to be a “good Muslim.” But what does this mean? If he appears to embrace his background — even superficially, such as showing up for the imam in the courtroom — he’s accused of being a terrorist sympathizer. If he distances himself from his roots, he’s called “self-hating,” and opens himself up to critique from non-Muslims about how wrong he is about Islam.

Much of the difficulty of Disgraced lies in what Emily describes in the play’s opening scene as “that gap” between what people assume and “what you really are,” and also in the gap between individual and collective responsibility. There is no excusing the social conditions that have nurtured his demons. There is also no excusing how these demons manifest themselves. Does Amir go ballistic because, as many critics fear is the most obvious interpretation, it’s in his nature as a Muslim man? Is it because of how the scotch mixes with his personal and professional shame? Is it because his life has been systematically wrecked by other people’s perceptions of him, no matter the lengths he goes to be a “good Muslim?” Is it because, at the end of the day, he’s just not a good person?

Audiences are left to form their own judgments of Amir, and the impossibility of this task is what makes Disgraced so haunting. The cast deserves major credit for taking on a play that deals with such viscerally disturbing material — the rehearsals can’t have been easy — and for doing so with such grace and nuance. Srivastava had an especially challenging part, and his portrayal of Amir’s undoing leaves you feeling sucker-punched by his performance.

I’m not in a position to judge Akhtar’s handling of race and religion, as someone who’s never been discriminated against on the basis of either, and I’m not touching that. But it’s profoundly unfair that because of the white-washed entertainment industry, Akhtar is burdened with being the spokesman for an entire group of people. It also seems unfair to argue that marginalized artists should only produce a certain kind of art, the kind that conveys a message we can feel good about ourselves for agreeing with. We don’t hold Arthur Miller up to this standard.

In any case, the fact that Disgraced has the monopoly over Muslim-American plays — and as far as I know, is the only one that’s gotten a Pulitzer — is its own disgrace, one in which all of us have also played a part.

Northern Stage’s production of Disgraced runs through March 18 at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction. For ticket prices ($15 through $65) and show times, go to northernstage.org.

Due to language, racism and gender-based violence, this play may not be suitable for some audiences.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.