Photos by Tim Fuller
Arizona Theatre Company’s “Disgraced” was penned by playwright Ayad Akhtar, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and in 2015 was nominated for a Tony Award for “Best Play.” Presented in ATC’s home theater in Phoenix at The Herberger Theater Center, “Disgraced” is a unique story in identity politics as it relates to Muslims living in the United States post 9/11 on the surface. But the brilliantly crafted dialogue delves into other territory in such a way that doesn’t seem too important at first, until it all rears its ugly head in the later part of the play.
With a backdrop semi-rooted in the art world, what begins with artist Emily (Allison Jean White) sketching her husband, Amir (Elijah Alexander) in their posh apartment, eventually spirals into an in-your-face look at Muslims living and working in our country. Although Amir is a successful mergers and acquisitions attorney, he is quickly drawn into an unwanted fray when he is asked by a newspaper about his opinion of a case surrounding a supposed terrorist. Although he is not directly representing the terrorist in the case, the newspaper makes it appear as much. The fact that Amir has tried to somewhat side step his true Pakistani Muslim heritage and his birth name are finally starting to bubble up to the surface in his life.
Emily is a passionate artist that currently creates works that relate to Islamic imagery. She is somewhat struggling to be fully understood in her art and thematic expression. Art expert and Emily’s Jewish art dealer, Isaac (Richard Baird) gets Emily her own art show, even though he really claims to love her work of landscapes more than her current pieces. How could Emily have landed her own show with art that is not necessarily in favor? Sure, Amir could have had a hand in it, but was there some other reason?
In what is supposed to be a celebratory dinner party for Emily - Amir, Emily and Isaac and his wife, Jory (Nicole Lewis), who is also a lawyer at Amir’s firm, begin the evening happily enough. Quickly, conversations turn to Islamic tradition, the Quran, racial profiling and 9/11. In a shocking moment, Amir makes a surprising revelation and all conversational hell breaks loose at the party. Since the dinner party includes an ex-Muslim and his Caucasian wife, a Jewish man and his African-American wife, there is much religious and political food for thought discussed as everything spirals out of control into shocking actions. The next-to-last scene is hard to watch but glaringly reveals some differences that exist between cultures.
Amir’s nephew, Abe (Vandit Bhatt), is seen briefly in a few scenes and we learn that he, too, has been “American-ized” and is trying to blend into Western culture and society. After an unfortunate incident lands him in front of the FBI, we are also forced to think about what Muslims are probably faced with in day-to-day life in America.
It was just a situation of coincidental timing that I viewed this play the night after the ISIS terrorist attacks in France. In a true full-circle moment, France is specifically mentioned during a conversation in the play and clearly, the audience reacted uncomfortably. Then again, ISIS had just struck and the Muslim connection between those attacks and this play made it an evening that wasn’t just about theater, it was about the true state of our present world. “Disgraced” is absolutely powerful and perhaps even more relevant now than when it was written just a few short years ago.
Bravo to actress Nicole Lewis in her portrayal of Jory, Isaac’s wife. Lewis was equal parts smart, sassy and insightful and brought thoughtful balance to scenes where there was so much tension. Her presence and delivery made the play a little easier to swallow and her brief punctuations of physical and conversational humor gave my mind a little breathing space before delving back into such heady material. I found that “Disgraced” was exceptionally acted by all four actors. The first 10 minutes with conversations between Emily and Amir seemed rushed, but they regained their timing and moved full steam ahead. If you don’t mind heavy subject matter, “Disgraced” is certainly a play that will force you to think.
“Disgraced” runs through November 29. Visit www.arizonatheatre.org or call (602) 256-6995 for additional information and tickets. Herberger Theater Center is located at 400 E. Van Buren St., Suite 720.