by CHRISTINE SARKES
In Disgraced at the Guthrie Theater, playwright Ayad Akhtar lays bare the deepest, darkest prejudices and fears of his diverse cast. In some ways, this is the most important review I’ve written to date and, like the play itself, the pressure to get it right is intense. What is it like for a Muslim-American child to grow up in the United States where ignorance of your religion and culture competes with the same in your own family? When you suffer daily humiliations at the hands of strangers and loved ones who hold extreme views, how do you overcome these to become a healthy, productive adult? For Amir, played by Bhavesh Patel in a bravura performance, the answer is to change your last name and reject all but the most superficial symbols of your heritage.
Living in a stylish Manhattan penthouse apartment, Amir and his beautiful, blond sophisticated artist-wife, Emily (Caroline Kaplan) enjoy all the trappings of a successful NYC couple–Hamptons weekends, $600 bespoke shirts, gallery openings and clever repartee with friends. Amir has worked hard for this life and in building his career as a contract lawyer with a prestigious firm, where he passes as a more palatable East Indian Hindu rather than the Pakistani Muslim he is. Amir and Emily have a playful, easy relationship and seem happy and comfortable in the life they’ve built. Amir’s nephew, Abe (Adit Dileep), visits the couple to ask Amir to represent an Imam who has been jailed and wrongly accused of financing domestic terrorism. Emily, whose own artwork is influenced by her affinity for all things Islamic, urges Amir to help the Imam. Kaplan plays Emily with an energetic, yet naive optimism and challenges Amir’s cynical, anti-Islamic leanings. She’s painting him in the style of Velazquez’s famous portrait, Juan de Pareja, which is a study of the artist’s own enslaved Moor, whom he ultimately sets free. Amir reluctantly agrees to see and “support” the Imam and the fallout from that decision leads to an exhaustingly powerful deconstruction of Amir’s life and beliefs, particularly during a dinner party with fellow lawyer/artist couple, Isaac (Kevin Isola) and Jory (Austene Van). Van’s portrayal of the world-weary, funny and wise Jory was a particular standout among the cast.
The debate is fiercely honest with a no-holds-barred discussion of a what it means to be a minority fighting for a seat on the American Dream bus. Is Islam a religion of beauty or violence or both? Can Muslims rise above the degradation and oppression of centuries of colonialism and authoritarianism or are they bound to the “disgrace” of their history? Can people of color have authentic relationships with the white ruling class or will we always see each other through the prism of our own prejudices and experiences? These are questions that can be posed to the actors during a post-play discussion that follows every performance.
The play, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was a 2015 Tony Award nominee for Best Play, is especially relevant to 2016 audiences who wonder thoughtfully at the violent clash of cultures taking place globally. The play isn’t easy but it is truly thought-provoking and makes an important contribution to theater. Days later, I still find myself pondering some of the more painful revelations and how they relate to today’s headlines. A final shout-out to scenic designer James Youmans for the stylish set design that allowed off-stage actors to remain part of the play’s exposition.
Disgraced, directed by Marcela Lorca and written by Ayad Akhtar. Set design by James Youmans, costume design by Ana Kuzmanic and lighting design by Rui Rita. July 16-August 28, 2016 on the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie Theater, 818 2nd St S, Minneapolis. Single tickets start at $34 at guthrietheater.org or box office at 612.377.2224. As available, public rush tickets (the remaining seats in the house) go on sale 15-30 minutes before any performance.