By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Produced in association with Goodman Theatre and Seattle Repertory Theatre
Main Season · Roda Theatre
November 6–December 27, 2015
West Coast Premiere
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Amir Kapoor is living the American Dream—an upper East Side apartment, Italian suits, and the promise of becoming partner at the law firm. But when he and his wife Emily, an artist influenced by Islamic imagery, host a dinner party for their friends and colleagues, lies and deception threaten to shatter Amir’s carefully constructed life of cultural assimilation. Playwright Ayad Akhtar won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for this engrossing and combustible drama that probes the complexity of identity, the place of faith in today’s world, and the hidden prejudices still alive in liberal society. Director Kimberly Senior comes to Berkeley Rep to stage the provocative play that she shepherded from Chicago to its triumphant run on Broadway.
Join us after all performances of Disgraced (excluding November 13 and December 27 evening performances) for a post-show discussion with Berkeley Rep staff, docents, and artists.
Berkeley Rep offers an advisory about any stage effect of potential concern to patrons’ health. This show has none. We don’t offer advisories about subject matter, as sensitivities vary from person to person. If you have any concerns about content, please contact the box office.
Ayad Akhtar · Playwright
Ayad’s plays include Disgraced (Broadway, LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater, 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and 2013 Obie Award for Extraordinary Achievement), The Who & The What (LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater and La Jolla Playhouse), and The Invisible Hand (New York Theatre Workshop/the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis). Also a novelist, Ayad is the author of American Dervish, published in 2012 by Little, Brown and Company, also in 20 languages worldwide. He co-wrote and starred in The War Within (Magnolia Pictures), which was released internationally and nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay. As an actor, Ayad also starred as Neel Kashkari in HBO’s adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book Too Big to Fail. He studied at Brown University and Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
Kimberly Senior · Director
Kimberly directed the Broadway premiere of Disgraced, which she previously directed off Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater. Her other off-Broadway credits include The Who & The What (Lincoln Center Theater). Her regional credits include Little Gem (City Theatre), Murder on the Nile, A Few Good Men (Peninsula Players), Mauritius (Theatre Squared, Fayetteville, AR), and The Who & The What (La Jolla Playhouse). Her many Chicago credits include Disgraced and Rapture, Blister, Burn (Goodman Theatre); Marjorie Prime, The Diary of Anne Frank, Hedda Gabler, and The Letters (Writers Theatre, where she is a resident director); 4000 Miles and The Whipping Man (Northlight Theatre); Want and The North Plan (Steppenwolf Theatre Company); Inana, My Name is Asher Lev, All My Sons, and Dolly West’s Kitchen (TimeLine Theatre, where she is an associate artist); Disgraced (American Theater Company); The Great God Pan, After the Revolution, Madagascar, The Overwhelming, and The Busy World Is Hushed (Next Theatre); and Waiting for Lefty (American Blues), among others. Kimberly is adjunct faculty at Columbia College, and is a proud member of SDC.
John Lee Beatty · Scenic Design
John’s Broadway credits include Disgraced, The Heidi Chronicles, Chicago, The Nance, Outside Mullingar, Venus in Fur, Other Desert Cities, Good People, Rabbit Hole, After Midnight, The Color Purple, Doubt, Proof, The Sisters Rosensweig, Talley’s Folly, Fifth of July, A Delicate Balance, The Heiress, Last Night of Ballyhoo, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and Abe Lincoln in Illinois. His recent off-Broadway credits include Dada Woof Papa Hot, Shows for Days, The City of Conversation, and Much Ado About Nothing and King Lear in Central Park. Designer of more than 100 Broadway shows, he is the recipient of multiple Tony, Obie, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama Desk Awards and is a member of the Theater Hall of Fame.
Jennifer Von Mayrhauser · Costume Design
Jennifer’s Broadway credits include Disgraced, Wit, Rabbit Hole, Knock Knock, Hay Fever, The Heidi Chronicles, Night of the Iguana, Talley’s Folly, Da, Execution of Justice, Baby, Beyond Therapy, and Angels Fall. Her off-Broadway credits include work with Lincoln Center Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights Horizons, Second Stage Theatre, and Circle Repertory Company. She received an Obie Award for Sustained Excellence. Her film credits include Hateship Loveship, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Captain Ron, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, I’m Not Rappaport, Lean on Me, The Real Blonde, and Mystic Pizza. Jennifer’s television credits include The Slap, Unforgettable, Under the Dome, and Law & Order (Emmy nomination). Please visit jennifervonmayrhauser.com.
Christine A. Binder · Lighting Design
Christine’s Chicago credits include Lookingglass Alice and Death Tax (Lookingglass Theatre Company), An Issue of Blood (Victory Gardens Theater), A Kid Like Jake (About Face Theatre), and Swan Lake (Joffrey Ballet). Her opera designs include work at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago Opera Theater, San Diego Opera, New York City Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Houston Grand Opera, as well as the recent Eugene Onegin for Grand Theatre de Geneve in Switzerland. Upcoming designs include Heir Apparent (Chicago Shakespeare Theater), Eugene Onegin (Houston Grand Opera), Thaddeus and Slocum: A Vaudeville Adventure (Lookingglass), and Cinderella (Joffrey Ballet). Christine received Jeff Award nominations for her work with Court Theatre, Lookingglass, and Northlight Theatre.
Jill DuBoff · Sound Design
Jill designed the sound for Berkeley Rep’s production of Mother Courage. Her Broadway credits include Hand to God, The Heidi Chronicles, Picnic, Wit, Other Desert Cities, Good People, The Constant Wife, The Good Body, and Bill Maher: Victory Begins at Home. Her off-Broadway credits include work at Lincoln Center Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club, Atlantic Theater Company, Vineyard Theatre, MCC Theater, Playwrights Horizons, the Public Theater, Second Stage Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, Women’s Project Theater, New Georges, the Flea Theater, Cherry Lane Theatre, Signature Theatre Company, Clubbed Thumb (affiliate artist), and Penguin Rep Theatre. Her regional credits include work with Bay Street Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, Cincinnati Playhouse, Westport County Playhouse, Portland Stage Company, Long Wharf Theatre, New York Stage and Film, Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Williamstown Theatre Festival, and the Adirondack Theatre Festival. Radio credits include Studio 360, Naked Radio, and Radiolab. Jill has received the Ruth Morley Design Award, an Obie Award for Sustained Excellence, and a Lilly Award. She has also been nominated for Drama Desk and Henry Hewes Awards and is an adjunct professor at Sarah Lawrence College. Jill is the audio producer for the New Yorker magazine.
Adam Belcuore · Casting
Adam has been the casting director at Goodman Theatre since 2003. As a casting director, he has also worked with Chicago Children’s Theatre, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Northlight Theatre, Seattle Children’s Theatre, Writers Theatre, and About Face Theatre. He is a founding member of Serendipity Theatre Collective and served as its artistic director until 2005. During his tenure he created 2nd Story, the hybrid storytelling, wine, and music event that is now the company’s namesake and primary focus. He currently serves on 2nd Story’s advisory board.
Julie Haber · Stage Manager
Julie is delighted to return to Berkeley Rep after stage managing You, Nero and Ballad of Yachiyo, both in co-production with South Coast Repertory. She has stage managed at many regional theatres around the country, including four summers at Santa Cruz Shakespeare (formerly Shakespeare Santa Cruz). She served as administrative stage manager at American Conservatory Theater and as company stage manager at South Coast Rep. She enjoys doing children’s theatre at MainStreet Theatre Company. She received her MFA from Yale School of Drama and has taught stage management at UC Irvine, UC San Diego, CalArts, and Yale. Julie is a proud member of Actors’ Equity.
Michael Suenkel · Assistant Stage Manager
Michael began his association with Berkeley Rep as the stage management intern for the 1984–85 season and is now in his 22nd year as production stage manager. Some of his favorite shows include 36 Views, Endgame, Eurydice, Hydriotaphia, and Mad Forest. He has also worked with the Barbican in London, the Huntington Theatre Company, the Juste Pour Rire Festival in Montreal, La Jolla Playhouse, Pittsburgh Public Theater, the Public Theater and Second Stage Theater in New York, and Yale Repertory Theatre. For the Magic Theatre, he stage managed Albert Takazauckas’ Breaking the Code and Sam Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss.
Jonathan L. Green · Dramaturg
J. Anthony Crane · Isaac
Anthony’s Broadway credits include The Country House and Sight Unseen (Manhattan Theatre Club), The Winslow Boy (Roundabout Theatre Company), and Butley with Nathan Lane. His off-Broadway credits include Modern Orthodox, Relativity, and The Brothers Karamazov. His regional credits include Scar in the first national tour of The Lion King, The Music Man (Theatre Under the Stars), Spamalot (Wynn Las Vegas), The Odd Couple (Dallas Theater Center), Absalom (Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville), Farragut North and 50 Words (Contemporary American Theater Festival), Sight Unseen (the Old Globe), and Lost In Yonkers (Papermill Playhouse). Anthony has also appeared in The Recruiting Officer, Our Country’s Good, Mary Poppins, All My Sons, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, The Glass Menagerie, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and Closer. Film and television credits include The War of the Roses, Life on Mars, Ugly Betty, The Practice, Third Watch, JAG, Six Degrees, Frasier, CSI, and The Big Easy. Anthony is a graduate of Northwestern University.
Behzad Dabu · Abe
Behzad’s Chicago credits include The Matchmaker, Disgraced, The Christmas Carol (Goodman Theatre); Inana, Blood and Gifts, and The History Boys (TimeLine Theatre Company); Samsara (Jeff nomination for Best Supporting Actor) and Disconnect (Victory Gardens Theater); Disgraced (American Theater Company); Twelfth Night (First Folio Theatre); Holes (Adventure Stage Chicago); and We Live Here (Theatre Seven of Chicago). His film and television credits include Chicago P.D., You’re So Talented, King Rat, and Imperfections. He is a member of the Chicago Inclusion Project and an associate artist with TimeLine Theatre Company. Behzad attended Columbia College Chicago and is represented by Paonessa Talent. Please visit behzaddabu.com.
Nisi Sturgis · Emily
Nisi’s New York credits include The 39 Steps, Intimate Apparel, Dysphoria, and The Less We Talk. Her regional credits include In The Next Room (or the vibrator play) (Cleveland Play House); A Doll’s House, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Life of Riley, Pentecost, Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, and Pericles (the Old Globe); Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Pride and Prejudice, Doubt, You Can’t Take It with You, and Richard III (Denver Center Theatre Company); A Streetcar Named Desire, To Kill a Mockingbird, Arms and the Man, Our Town, and Trelawny of the Wells (Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey); Hamlet and Emma (Pioneer Theatre Company); Failure: A Love Story and Macbeth (Illinois Shakespeare Festival); Twelfth Night (Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre); and Trying (Merrimack Repertory Theatre). Her television credits include the recurring role of June Thompson on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Nisi received her MFA from the Old Globe.
Bernard White · Amir
Bernard’s off-Broadway credits include The Tempest and The Death of Garcia Lorca (the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival), The Who & The What and Blood and Gifts (Lincoln Center Theater), Landscape of the Body (Signature Theatre Company), and Sakharam Binder (Play Company). His regional credits include Troilus and Cressida and Henry V (Oregon Shakespeare Festival); Art (East West Players); The Who & The What, The Seven, and Dogeaters (La Jolla Playhouse); Wings of Desire (American Repertory Theater/Toneelgroep Amsterdam); and Blithe Spirit and Lucy and the Conquest (Williamstown Theatre Festival). Bernard’s film credits include Miss India America, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Vino Veritas, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Quarantine, The World Unseen, American Dreamz, Land of Plenty, Raising Helen, The Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions, Scorpion King, Pay It Forward, and City of Angels. His TV credits include recurring roles on The Brink and Silicon Valley (in third season) in addition to Madame Secretary, Grey’s Anatomy, Touch, Castle, The Good Wife, N.C.I.S., and over 100 more.
Zakiya Young · Jory
Zakiya’s Broadway credits include Stick Fly, The Little Mermaid, and The Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Her off-Broadway credits include Storyville (Audelco Award nomination for Outstanding Performance in a Musical—Female) and Tenderloin at the York Theatre Company, The Lightning Thief at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, Chasing the Bird at the Joyce Theater, and Greenwood at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Her regional credits include Good People at George Street Playhouse and Seattle Repertory Theatre, Aida at Music Theatre Wichita and Starlight Theatre, It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman at Dallas Theater Center, White Christmas at Syracuse Stage, and Little Miss Sunshine at La Jolla Playhouse. Zakiya’s television credits include Orange Is the New Black, Made in Jersey, This American Life—Live at BAM (video and radio), and the web series Submissions Only. Please visit zakiyayoung.com.
The actors and stage managers are members of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
“As devastating as are the final scenes of Disgraced at Berkeley Repertory Theatre—and Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning drama is as deeply unsettling as it is thought-provoking—the act of conscience that followed the opening night curtain call, Friday, Nov. 13, was even more profoundly moving. As the applause died down, the actors stared straight ahead, fumbled for each other’s hands and bowed their heads for a simple, prolonged moment of silence. The packed, still house joined in unstated but explicit shared humanity and solidarity with the people of Paris. And, I believe, with freedom for art, thought and life itself…Disgraced doesn’t invite dispassion. It’s the story of a resolutely secular, ambitiously assimilated, second-generation Pakistani American lawyer, whose hidden—and vehemently disowned—Islamic heritage bursts back into his life with a vengeance. And it has stirred almost as much controversy as it has enthusiasm throughout a high-profile transit from Chicago in 2012 through London’s West End to Broadway…By the end of Akhtar’s tightly constructed plot, at least one career and perhaps more than one marriage lie in ruins. But the personal tragedy that’s unfolded hasn’t just been compelling on its own terms. It’s been framed to make us think about major social issues in their most deeply personal, human contexts.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A dramatic triumph…Could any work of dramatic art be more timely, more provocative, more ripe for debate right now than Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, which is receiving a sterling production at Berkeley Rep? That would be hard to imagine.”—Huffington Post
“A deftly crafted, theatrically compelling dissection of the intersection of sex, ethnicity and ambition…An unstinting and immediate drama…Plenty of plays feature protagonists who need to learn who they are and the importance of forefathers. This one features a guy who comes to see that one’s roots can be radioactive.”—Chicago Tribune
“It’s the rare play that lives up to its reputation for making you think as hard as you feel. Akhtar (American Dervish) has become one of the most celebrated, and controversial, Muslim-American writers of his day because he bravely explores how his characters really feel about racial and religious taboos. He unties the thorny knots of identity, immigration and tribalism that riddle society today…Akhtar, who wrote this incendiary play as part of a seven-part series of works on Muslim-American identity, pushes every hot button he can for a bracing 85 minutes of betrayal and shifting allegiances. Senior, who also directed the play on Broadway, frames the piece beautifully so that the characters always feel real and believable even as the action descends into acts of brutality.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
“A continuously engaging, vitally engaged play about thorny questions of identity and religion in the contemporary world, with an accent on the incendiary topic of how radical Islam and the terrorism it inspires have affected the public discourse. In dialogue that bristles with wit and intelligence, Mr. Akhtar, a novelist and screenwriter, puts contemporary attitudes toward religion under a microscope, revealing how tenuous self-image can be for people born into one way of being who have embraced another…Everyone has been told that politics and religion are two subjects that should be off limits at social gatherings. But watching Mr. Akhtar’s characters rip into these forbidden topics, there’s no arguing that they make for ear-tickling good theater.”—New York Times
“The play remains a smart and provocative work of unusual daring, one that should be seen by anyone who cares about serious theater and the knotted tangles of tribal beliefs that lurk under civilized layers of educated, liberal professionals.”—Newsday
“Smart, spiky entertainment…A stimulating, sobering work from a distinctive new American playwright.”—Hollywood Reporter
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
I was raised to be an American. My father was Italian from Brooklyn, my mom Puerto Rican and raised in Spanish Harlem. They were both relatively poor and had very large extended families. They identified strongly with their bloodlines: Spanish and English were both spoken at home while the cursing was done in Italian. Raucous family celebrations featured vigorous, competitive, and very loud demonstrations of ethnic pride from both sides of the clan.
But as grounded as they were in their particular cultures, more than anything else, my parents aspired to be Americans. Raised during the Depression and coming into adulthood just after World War II, they hurled themselves into pursuing the American dream. For most of their lives, they were the beneficiaries of a growing economy, affordable housing, and a strong public school system for their children.
The cost of that assimilation was that over the course of time, they slowly sublimated their ethnic identities. While they never denied their heritage, it became less of a prominent feature. Class identification transcended ethnicity, and the values of the dominant white culture seeped more and more into aspects of our lives.
Which leads me to tonight’s play. Disgraced follows the story of Amir, a Pakistani American lawyer who hides his Muslim background for personal and professional reasons. When the truth is exposed, all hell breaks loose. The foundations of his successful law practice begin to crumble and the contradictions of his political views explode his relationships. In the blink of an eye, the armor that Amir has built to protect his identity as an American is stripped away, and he is left to grapple with the remnants of his tattered and torn history. It’s a brutal and exciting story, given astonishing voice and shape by playwright Ayad Akhtar, director Kimberly Senior, and the entire creative team.
The events of Disgraced have been compressed for dramatic purposes. And the situation facing Muslims in America today is fraught with suspicion and judgment. Most of us will never have to deal with encounters as volatile as the one presented tonight. But we all carry our histories in ways that we don’t fully comprehend or even acknowledge. When challenged or threatened, those histories can emerge with startling speed, revealing parts of ourselves we’ve kept hidden. Disgraced compels us to constantly deepen our understanding of the past, of our personal and collective history, so that we may move with clarity and empathy into the future.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
You very likely received an envelope in the mail from Berkeley Rep recently. Yes, a real snail mail envelope! And it may still be sitting on your desk, unopened, with a pile of similar letters, waiting for your year-end ritual of assessing which nonprofit organizations play a meaningful role in your life or in the life of your community. Am I right? You now know how I handle my year-end contributions. Those solicitations pile up on my desk as December 31 looms close. I finally set aside a time to weigh the merits of each organization, considering which I will make a priority, which I will forgo, which will see an increase in my support, and which may have seen my last gift.
We labor over our letter to you. Every word is parsed and every appeal refined. And yet, for all our effort, I know that you get dozens of solicitations and our appeals may never see anything more than your waste basket! Actually, one of the things we know about our Berkeley Rep audience is that you are an unusually involved and community-minded crowd, which is one reason you have so many choices when it comes to philanthropy.
But I hope that you will take our request seriously. As you know, the Thrust Stage has been closed this fall for a much-needed renovation. Over the last 35 years, the Thrust Stage has seen over 15,000 performances and its fair share of wear and tear. Now, we’re breathing new life into our signature theatre with a new energy-efficient infrastructure, a state-of-the-art sound system, and upgraded amenities that will improve your theatregoing experience. What’s not changing is the intimacy between performer and audience member that makes seeing a show in the Thrust so special. The renovation is being fully funded by contributions to the Create Campaign from patrons like you.
In 1980, we opened the Thrust Stage with the generous investment of this community. This January, we will re-open the theatre to a new generation of theatregoers, and we need your support to help make it happen.
When you return home today, I hope you’ll open that envelope marked Berkeley Rep and include us in your year-end philanthropy.
Wishing you a joy-filled New Year!
Wrestling with Disgraced: An interview with Ayad Akhtar
By Sarah Rose Leonard
Ayad Akhtar won the Pulitzer Prize for Disgraced in 2013, after it ran at LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater and before it transferred to Broadway. But Disgraced’s success is only one part of this prolific writer’s multifaceted career. His novel, American Dervish, has been published in over 20 languages and garnered a 2012 Best Book of the Year from Kirkus Reviews. He has written two other critically acclaimed plays, and his screenplay, The War Within, was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay. Ayad is currently working on various commissions and adapting Disgraced for HBO. He dropped by Berkeley Rep on his way back from a writer’s retreat and gave Literary Manager Sarah Rose Leonard a glimpse of how fast his brain works and how quickly he can jump up on a chair when speaking emphatically.
Sarah Rose Leonard: What inspired you to write Disgraced?
Ayad Akhtar: I was possessed. I mean, it just came out of me. At some point I could not stop hearing this guy Amir’s voice and could not understand what he was telling me or why he was speaking, why he kept saying these things. You know Faulkner once said, “All I do is follow my characters around and write down what they say.” That was really the first time I had that experience.
Can you name some of your influences?
I had this high school teacher who changed my life and made me want to become a writer. Everything I do is in homage to her. One of the things that she did was expose me to European Modernism. I read Robert Musil and Kafka and Rilke and Proust and Camus and Sartre and Heinrich Böll and Thomas Mann and just on and on and on. It instilled in me this idea that being a great writer was writing like a European modernist. It took me 15, 17, 19 years, until my mid-to-early 30s to understand that idea was blocking me from my entire experience as a person. The preoccupation with astonishing and impressing, the aesthetic, that literary poetic of modernism was in the way not only of me and my subject matter, but why I wanted to do this thing in the first place. I felt touched by stories. I didn’t care about being impressed by them. I felt touched by them. When I started to understand this, everything began to change for me. I finally began to find myself as a writer and what I found was my natural inclination toward thrillers and melodrama and potboilers. I don’t want the audience connected only in the mind—I want it in the body and everywhere. Narrative, intellectual, emotional, anticipatory connections. I want seduction. I want all of it.
You have said that your work falls more on the side of entertainment. How did you decide that was the need you wanted to fill?
I say that as a tactic because I don’t subscribe to the division between high and low that pervades literary culture. Especially, to some degree, in the theatre. I feel that by situating my work as entertainment—when it is so clearly preoccupied by philosophical issues and political issues—that I’m foregrounding the way in which I’m ultimately trying to connect to an audience. I’m not particularly interested in having a dialogue with theatrical tradition and history. I have no problem with it. I’m just not interested in it. To me what’s interesting about the theatre is the living, breathing connection to an audience here and now. By calling the work entertainment, I’m foregrounding the centrality of the audience’s experience of my work. It’s strategic.
I understand Disgraced is part of a larger body of work. Can you talk about what you are exploring?
I’m now four works into a seven-work series which is exploring contemporary life from the perspective of Muslim American identity. And each of the works has a very different take on it. There’s The Who & The What, which is about a very devout family in Atlanta struggling with their progressive daughter, who is also devout, but progressive. Disgraced deals with the rejection of faith and secularism. American Dervish deals with mysticism (that’s the novel that I wrote). And The Invisible Hand, with political extremist ideology. I’m exploring it from all the various angles.
What makes you know what form your work wants to take?
I typically write in three forms: for the screen, the theatre, or the page. And each of them has a different kind of interiority. Movies tell you through the cutting, through the camera angle selection, through the image size, through the flow of images. The director makes most of those decisions for you. A novelist similarly does the same thing through language. In theatre, you are given greater freedom, but you’re also more on the outside. And that creates a different kind of interiority that’s particularly conducive to a collective experience. So each idea has its own sense of self. Some ideas want to be described. For others, you want to be absorbed in the experience. And with still others, you want to be confronted and challenged in some way.
What interests you about the similarities between religion and the financial world? I’m thinking about the substitution of religion for money in The Invisible Hand and Amir’s pursuit of financial well-being as a secular Muslim in Disgraced.
Those are the two central issues of our times. I think that the language of finance and the dilemmas of faith are the two central narrative axes of the collective psyche of the fading, late, capitalist empire that we are. For me, it is not a matter of a conscious choice to write about that; it’s the emanation of a natural interest on my part. I read the Wall Street Journal every day. I have been preoccupied with issues of faith most of my life. I think that, actually, writing about the financial world is writing about religious ideology. I think that free-market capitalism has all of the hallmarks of religious ideology: assumptions about reality, enacted rituals, the expectation that certain rituals will lead to certain outcomes when it’s patently the case that it never does, vociferous belief, and the marshaling of national and personal resources to justify unproven and unprovable assumptions about reality. Eight hundred years ago, we could’ve talked about the reigning ideological order guiding individuals and nations, and we would’ve called it the church. Today we call it the economy.
How does this play out for Amir in Disgraced?
Amir is a guy who wants to make it. Amir is somebody who doesn’t know who he is. He thinks that he can do what many Americans do, which is to cut themselves off from the Old World and renew themselves in the New World. We celebrate that renewal as the great American story. Seven or eight generations in, you have kids that are leaving families from one coast and going to another and finding surrogate families and surrogate communities. Rupture from the old self, renewal of the self in a new world: that’s the American story. Amir finds himself in the unfortunate predicament of being Muslim, Muslim for whatever it means to him, in the post-9/11 world, and that paradigm of the American story is not offered to him. All he can experience is the mourning of the rupture. He cannot be celebrated for his renewal. So that’s the dilemma. I think that the play, in a way, speaks to the trouble of failing to mourn the rupture. Which we do not do as Americans. We don’t like mourning, and we don’t like acknowledging what we’re leaving behind.
You’ve drawn a line between assimilation and self-denial with Amir’s character. What interests you about the flip side of assimilation?
I think that Amir sees some inherent tension between liberal, secularist, contemporary, capitalist democracy and Islamic ideology as he experienced it growing up. I think he’d say that Islam and the West are not compatible, which is a point of view that some people have. And I think that he falls on the side of, “I don’t want to have anything to do with Islam. Because I saw a lot of stuff growing up that I hated, and I don’t want to recapitulate it.” It’s a position a lot of people take with regard to Catholicism, and with regard to Judaism, with regard to whatever religion they come from. It’s just that we can’t talk about Islam these days because nobody can really see it outside the “Us and Them. Are they our friends or are they our foes? Is Islam against me or for me? Should I be scared or should I not be scared?” There’s a whole universe of stuff outside of what you’re feeling about whether you should be afraid or not. But the discourse we are now involved in is all about either defending or attacking Islam. So Amir has fallen right into it and he is playing along with this paradigm in order to create space for himself.
Can you talk about the relationship between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the play?
This is a complicated one because of my personal history. I, a Muslim kid, grew up and the first author who spoke to me was Chaim Potok, and then I learned how to write from Philip Roth and Woody Allen and Seinfeld. The Jewish American experience has taught me how to understand my own experience as a Muslim. So there’s a real paradox there, because there is an inherent tension between Judaism and Islam for many complicated reasons. I believe that Islam basically comes from Judaism, so on some level, Islam has always had to differentiate itself, just like Christianity. I don’t know how you can construe that the Jews killed Christ from the story of Pontius Pilate, but somehow that’s the message. That seems to be more about Christianity trying to distance itself from the very central, problematic issue that Jesus is Jewish. Similarly, in Islam, it is very difficult to distance yourself from the texts. I mean the Quran is constantly referring to the Old Testament. It is constantly telling the stories of the Old Testament in this fragmentary form as if to imply that the first readers and the first hearers of the Quran already knew the stories. So in some ways, it’s really a secondary source glossing on the Old Testament. It’s like an Arab Talmudic version of the Old Testament. So there’s this inherent tension there. And I go into much greater detail in a more personal narrative way in American Dervish, but I think that Disgraced is picking up the thread of this long-standing brotherhood between Judaism and Islam, and of course the contemporary issue of Israel and Palestine, which figures only more and more strongly in the geopolitics of the world today.
The play has now been in your life for about three and a half years. How has your relationship with it changed over time?
I understand it finally. When it went up in Chicago, I didn’t understand what I had written. And then when it got to Lincoln Center and I did it in New York, I started to understand it better. I get so many troubled responses. People walk away from this play moved, and confused, and angry. Sometimes they are very deeply satisfied, other times very deeply unsatisfied. And they want me to explain it to them. And I say to them, “Look, I’m the writer, and it took me three years to understand what I wrote.” I think that you just gotta sit with it for a little while. Because I cannot explain to you the ways in which the play is interfacing with your own prejudices and causing a kind of reaction that you then see mirrored onstage. Which you then have to relate to in some embodied way that is no longer about your mind. And then you have to grapple with that experience afterwards. If you’re a Muslim-lover, then you have to go talk about how I am a self-hating writer. And if you’re a Muslim-hater, then you have to go off and say, “I know what I’m talking about, because I’m the one telling the truth about these Muslims.” So that complex dynamic of how meaning begins to take shape in this very personal way for every audience member is something that has taken me a very long time to understand. The play is enacting the process of representation, the process of polarization, the process of splitting. There’s no meaning to the play. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s an experience for the audience to have.
What do you hope people walk away with?
What I do hope is that this public event of conflict and tragedy can find an audience that has lost itself in that experience, and both recognizes itself and does not recognize itself in what they saw. And are so moved or troubled or confused by what they saw, but convinced by the truth of what they saw, that they cannot forget it once they leave the theatre. And the trouble that the play has released into them is something that causes them to keep asking the question, “What’s wrong? Is something wrong with the play? Is something wrong with the world that the play is talking about? Is there something wrong with me? Is something wrong with America? Is something wrong with the writer?”
In Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, Islamophobia—a prejudice against Islam and Muslims—is never named but is ever-present. Although the term itself is relatively new—common usage began in the mid-1990s—America’s awareness of the concept has been growing since 9/11. Religious bias has always been a part of society; prejudice and hate crimes against Muslims began as early as the Crusades. The emotional and physical violence inflicted during centuries of battle has remained in place to this day. Recent reported civil rights cases include the defacing of mosques, harassment of worshipers leaving their place of prayer, violent hate crimes, discrimination in the workplace, acts of prejudice in educational environments, and unfounded arrests. Islamophobic hate crimes peaked during the recession; scapegoating is more pervasive in times of fear. One recent example occurred in September 2015, when 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed brought a homemade clock to school to show his engineering teacher; the clock ticked in his English class, and school officials reported him to the police for having a bomb. He was handcuffed, taken to a juvenile detention center, and questioned before he was eventually released to his parents. He was suspended from school for three days. Thankfully, this story has a silver lining. President Obama wrote on Twitter, “Cool clock, Ahmed, want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.” Ahmed visited the White House on October 19 for Astronomy Night, an event bringing together scientists, engineers, astronauts, teachers, and students to spend an evening stargazing from the South Lawn. America’s complex relationship with Islamophobia is a slow, shifting one that changes shape depending on the current political moment.
Obliterating the ego: Islamic art and the West
By Katie Craddock
Major works of Islamic art and architecture include the Taj Mahal, the Alhambra, the Dome of the Rock, and the Great Mosque of Córdoba with its “pillars and arches” that make “you feel like praying,” as Emily describes in Disgraced. Emily, a white, non-Muslim, American artist, paints in a style inspired by Islamic art. While Emily’s embracing of the Islamic art tradition raises tricky questions about creative ownership, Islamic art itself comprises a rich, vast body of work, and can be appreciated around the world. Although many works of Islamic art may be familiar to Western audiences, Western perceptions of Islamic art can be reductive. For instance, a common misconception in the West holds that Islamic art is largely “nonrepresentational” because Islam prohibits figural imagery (art depicting human or animal forms). While there are Hadith, or sayings, attributed to the Prophet Muhammed that warn against the risks of figural imagery because it may encourage idolatry, the Quran itself does not prohibit artistic figural imagery. On the contrary, there is a significant body of figural Islamic art across time periods and media.
Art history, a discipline developed in the West, privileges figural representation above other artistic modes. While much Islamic art is indeed non-figural, to call it “nonrepresentational” is inaccurate; non-figural art may represent ideas, concepts, and relationships. Instead of asking why Islamic art is non-figural, local professor Carol Bier, a historian of Islamic art, posits that we should turn the question around to ask, “Why, in the Western world, is there such an incredible preoccupation with figural imagery?” This prejudice extends to academic programming—universities will typically add art history courses in Indian or Chinese art, which have more figural traditions, sooner than courses in non-figural traditions. Yet when discussing the development of Abstract Expressionism and Modernism in the 20th century, the academy rarely acknowledges that the principles of those forms—such as abstraction, rhythm, repetition, and non-figural representation—were established in Islamic art hundreds of years earlier.
Islamic artists also struggle to gain traction in the Western museum establishment. Ninety-one-year-old Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian has been creating gripping works of mosaic-style geometric abstraction for over four decades. A resident of Tehran who lived half her life in New York City, Farmanfarmaian’s pieces innovatively marry Islamic art traditions and Modernism. It was only this spring that she finally had her first solo exhibition in a major New York museum—a retrospective of her work at the Guggenheim that included 80 of her faceted mirror sculptures and geometric drawings created between 1974 and 2014. The New York Times’ Randy Kennedy noted, “To say that the show…has been a long time in coming would not only be an understatement but an object lesson in several kinds of history, [including] the West’s long-wary relationship with [Islamic] art.”
Rather than focusing on the ways in which Islamic art departs from European traditions, we can better understand the art by examining it on its own terms. Instead of conceiving of Islamic art as “nonrepresentational,” we can think of it as both predominantly textual and deeply mathematical. Calligraphy is arguably the central element of Islamic art; Islamic artists exploit the Arabic script to transform texts—historically, often passages from the Quran—into multitudes of exquisite designs. As Islamic mathematicians, astronomers, and scientists made thrilling discoveries and contributions to their fields in the 11th and 12th centuries, Islamic artists created complex geometric patterns across a variety of media that emphasized both adherence to form and pattern, and the eye-catching interruption of those patterns through judicious symmetry-breaking. As Emily asserts, unlike Renaissance forms, which “put the individual at the center of the universe and made a cult out of the personal ego,” the Islamic tradition is still “connected to a wider, less personal perspective.” Where Western forms are largely borne of a tendency to prize the individual above all else, Islamic art often expresses a more expansive, collectivist outlook.
Behind the scenes: Zakiya Young
Actor Zakiya Young talks about her character Jory in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Disgraced.
Behind the scenes: Behzad Dabu
Actor Behzad Dabu talks about his character Abe in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Disgraced.
Behind the scenes: Bernard White
Actor Bernard White talks about his character Amir in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Disgraced.
Disgraced is a hit! See what the critics say, then reserve your seats.
Behind the scenes: Kimberly Senior
Director Kimberly Senior discusses Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Disgraced.
Sneak peek at Disgraced
Playwright Ayad Akhtar gives compelling commentary on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
Photos by Liz Lauren
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Curious about Muslim American identity and other topics central to Disgraced? Peruse these pieces culled by the literary staff, with help from our friends at Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
- Disgraced premiered in 2012 and has been almost unremittingly performed ever since; it continues to be relevant to our sociopolitical landscape. Playwright Ayad Akhtar and several actors discuss the play’s ability to spark conversation around difficult questions of race, religion, and identity.
- Disgraced is part of Ayad Akhtar’s seven-work series exploring contemporary life from the perspective of Muslim American identity—including, as this piece describes, two more plays, and a novel.
- Islamic art traditions and their underlying philosophies—and breaks from these—loom large in Disgraced. This article explores the play’s treatment of Islamic art, the Western tendency to fixate on outward appearance, and how the play’s characters represent themselves and misrepresent each other based on appearances.
- Professor Carol Bier, a historian of Islamic art, created this website on geometric symmetry and pattern—key elements characteristic of much Islamic art, and central to Disgraced’s Emily’s artwork—focused on oriental carpets.
- Velázquez’s Juan de Pareja, which Disgraced’s Emily reproduces as a portrait of her husband Amir, is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met’s online collection has details on the painting’s creation and exhibition history, as well as essays on the painting and related works.
- This Goodman Theatre piece showcases 10 of Velázquez’s famed masterpieces.
- UC Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender’s Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project takes a systematic and empirical approach to the study of Islamophobia and its impact on Muslim communities, who are often demonized and treated as a feared global “other.” It publishes a journal, an online newspaper, and many articles.
- The New Yorker covers the case of the Khan family, Pakistani Americans who were accused of supporting the Taliban. Hafiz, an elderly imam who had developed a relationship with an FBI informant, and his two sons were imprisoned and put into solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. The sons were both found to be innocent; Hafiz was sentenced to 25 years without parole.
- A Boston-based Pakistani American doctor wrote this op-ed the day after the Boston Marathon bombings. He reflects on his experiences of terror growing up in Pakistan, of being both a victim of terror and a potential suspect in Boston, and wonders if it would be easier to lie the next time people ask him where he’s from and say India or Bangladesh.
- Taz Ahmed and Zahra Noorbakhsh host this hilarious and thought-provoking podcast on being Muslim American women.
- In 2006, This American Life told the story of a Muslim woman who persuaded her husband they’d be happier if they moved from the West Bank to the United States—and they were, until 9/11.
- This American Life covers the case of Farouk al-Aziz (real name Craig Monteilh), who worked undercover for the FBI by showing up at a mosque in Orange County and pretending to be a Muslim extremist. The effort backfired spectacularly—the mosque’s attendees ended up reporting him to the FBI, not knowing they were the ones that planted him.
Docent talks and discussions
Pre-show docent talks
Meet us in the Theatre an hour before the show on Tuesdays and Thursdays for an engrossing presentation about your subscription-season play. Hear about the playwright’s perspective, dive into the historical context, and discover why the script is relevant right now. Each 30-minute talk includes plenty of time for your questions.
Post-show docent-led discussions
Join your fellow audience members after all matinees and share your thoughts on the show.
Teen Night gives local teens the opportunity to meet for dinner and a behind-the-scenes discussion with a member of the artistic team before attending each subscription-season production at an extremely discounted price.
- Friday, November 6, 2015
Stick around after select performances for lively Q&A sessions with our artists on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday nights.
- Tuesday, December 1, 2015
- Friday, December 11, 2015
- Tuesday, December 15, 2015
And join us after all the other performances of Disgraced for an audience talkback and discussion moderated by Berkeley Rep’s staff members.
Page to Stage
Every season, Berkeley Rep hosts Page to Stage, a series of free discussions with eminent theatre artists, designed to give audiences additional insight into the plays and playwrights produced at Berkeley Rep. Past programs have featured theatre luminaries such as David Edgar, Sarah Jones, Tony Kushner, Delroy Lindo, Donald Margulies, Terrence McNally, Charles Mee, Rita Moreno, Salman Rushdie, and the Chicano performance trio Culture Clash.
- Thursday, November 19, 2015
Resident Dramaturg Madeleine Oldham interviews Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar
Please note: This Page to Stage takes place in the Goldman Theater at the David Brower Center, located at 2150 Allston Way (near Oxford Street).
Each talk starts at 7pm and runs about 60 minutes. No tickets are necessary for these free events, but seating is limited. The lobby opens at 6pm, and doors to the Theatre open at 6:30pm for general admission seating. Berkeley Rep donors at the Friend level or higher ($75+) enjoy reserved seating. For more information about Page to Stage or how to become a donor, call 510 647–2906.