Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"Disgraced" at Seattle Rep: Powerful, provoking, maybe painful production – the effects of racism, within and without

The cast of Disgraced (Liz Lauren)
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through February 6, 2016

I can totally see what the Pulitzer judges would appreciate in the searing script by Ayad Akhtar, Disgraced. The play not only punches through racism, religion, art, and fear-of-others, it breaks open taboos everywhere it turns. Now, Seattle gets to experience it in an air-tight production at Seattle Repertory Theatre that barely lets anyone breathe after the first 20 minutes until the end.

The play is by no means flawless. In fact, the drive toward the ending demonstrates the youth of the playwright in playwriting – it’s his very first play. To my mind, the ending becomes “undeserved” in terms of the development of the characters and what we have learned about them. But it is undeniably brave and strong.

Seattle Rep announced it was extending the run by a full week, which suggests that it is indeed a production hitting a cord with the public and drawing an eager audience. That’s a good sign, because theater this strongly reaction-producing sometimes lands a theater in the difficult position of staging what they believe is a vital part of their mission, yet losing money from audiences staying away.

A short synopsis is: Amir (Bernard White) is a successful Pakistani-American lawyer with a beautiful, blonde artist-wife, Emily (Nisi Sturgis). Emily loves Islamic art and blends it into her paintings. Amir is so irreligious that he is hostile toward his Muslim upbringing and family traditions.

Amir’s African-American attorney-colleague, Jory (Zakiya Young), has a husband who produces art shows. Oh, and he’s Jewish (Isaac, played by J. Anthony Crane). Amir has encouraged Isaac to see his wife’s art work to consider including her in a show.

Politics has intruded into the family by way of a local imam who has been arrested on terrorist-related charges, and Emily urges Amir to get involved on his behalf. Amir feels wary of how it might impact his standing in his conservative, Jewish law firm, but his cousin, Abe (Behzad Dabu) chimes in, as well. When Amir attends a hearing, a newspaper article implies he is one of the defense attorneys, even though he explicitly says he is not.

The table is set, then, for a lot of stereotyping and breaking of stereotypes during the course of an intense dinner party with Amir, Emily, Jory and Isaac. By that point, we have learned a lot about each character in this 90-minute, jam-packed script.

Amir is a very complicated American. He is bright, educated, aware, political, and verbally, violently rejecting of Islam, pointing to it as a violent religion and also rejecting his parents’ strict adherence to associating with only Muslims. He also is self-aware enough to admit, reluctantly, to unbidden feelings of resonance, sometimes, with other Muslims in world events. He feels he is “tribally” connected, though he hates that as well.

But he is also aware enough of American antipathy to Pakistan and Islam that he’s changed his last name from a more Muslim one to Kapoor, a more Indian-resonating surname. He has also busted his butt at work, yet is not secure enough to know if they will reward him with a partnership.

Each of the other characters is also smart, educated, political, and aware. The conversation is elevated and argumentative, though mostly civil for a good while, until alcohol and anger cause the evening to spin out of control.

That is when both the relationships and, essentially, the script go over the edge where the script needn’t have pushed quite so hard. But as over-the-top as it goes, the script is so taut and well-written up to that point that it is well-worth weathering the controversial explosion.

The actors have all already performed together in both Chicago at the Goodman Theatre and Berkeley at the Berkeley Rep (co-producers), so all of them have blended seamlessly into relationship, and Seattle has the benefit of a well-seasoned cast. They are all top-notch talent, and director Kimberly Senior has directed every iteration of this play from its beginning. All the technical elements are gorgeous, particularly the set (John Lee Beatty) and the lighting (Christine A. Binder).

I have had the pleasure of seeing all three of Akhtar’s plays. His second, The Invisible Hand played at ACT Theatre in 2014, in a searing production about an American finance expert held captive by Arabs until he can create his own ransom by showing them how to manipulate the stock market. I also attended his third, The Who and The What in Chicago at Victory Gardens Theatre, which is a dark comedy about a young Muslim-American writer who decides to write a book about Mohammed, even though it could put her family in difficult straits.

Akhtar deals in each with an uneasy relationship with modern-day Islamic religion and being an American descended from immigrants. As with many authors, he seems to be trying to come to some personal conclusions by writing the conflict into his plays. He does so with passion, smarts, and beautiful writing. But in his first and third plays, the more personal, individualized stories, his manipulation of the stage concepts is not as sure. Still, there is every reason artistic reason to see his plays and admire his attempts to tackle these difficult emotion-producing subjects.

The Rep is concerned enough and perhaps curious enough about the impact of the play that they are holding a post-play discussion after every performance. That may well be a highlight of your attendance. Certainly, it’s an opportunity to hear from fellow audience members before you all leave, and to vent about many strong feelings, if you wish.

For more information, go to or call 206-443-2222. 

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