- OnStage Los Angeles Critic
LOS ANGELES CA - What happens when you mix four people from vastly different ethnic and religious backgrounds, a lot of alcohol, and a multitude of hurtful secrets? The answer is a disaster of a dinner party, and also the 2013 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Disgraced, which opened this weekend at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
Written by Ayad Akhtar, Disgraced is a powerful and topical examination of societal racism and identity. The play first premiered in Chicago in 2012, followed by runs both Off-Broadway and Off West End prior to a Broadway transfer in 2014. Unfolding slowly over the course of an intense 90 minutes, the events that occur left the Los Angeles audience audibly gasping in shock as tensions boiled over to a point of no return.
Amir (Hari Dhillon, who previously played the role on Broadway), the main character, was born in America and raised Muslim. Now a successful lawyer, he has taken rather extreme measures to distance himself from his Pakistani heritage, including changing his name and denouncing the Islamic faith. His wife, Emily (Emily Swallow) is a WASP and an artist who has made a name for herself by creating pieces inspired by Islamic culture. When the play begins, Amir’s nephew, Abe (Behzad Dabu), recruits Emily’s help in convincing Amir to appear in court in support of a local imam whom he believes was arrested without cause. Amir has serious concerns about associating himself with someone accused of financing terrorists, but ultimately agrees to help.
A few months later, Amir’s colleague, an African-American woman named Jory (Karen Pittman) and her husband, Isaac (J Anthony Crane), a Jewish art dealer interested in Emily’s work, come over for dinner. As cocktails flow and secrets come out, their four contrasting worldviews and Amir’s increasing paranoia over how the incident with the imam will affect his career lead to a shocking confrontation.
While Disgraced is specifically a look at Islamophobia in post 9/11 America, its smart, complex messages about race and self-acceptance can easily be applied to many situations in today’s volatile political climate. Amir is not a likable protagonist. He has spent his life struggling to separate himself from a racial and religious identity he resents, and as a result, has a lot of deeply internalized self-hatred that ultimately manifests itself in the way he interacts with the world, particularly with those who are different from him. When Amir goes through airport security, he volunteers himself every time to be singled out and searched in a misguided attempt to embrace what he sees as inevitable. He resents his female, African-American colleague for having what he perceives to be an easier path to the top of their profession. He refuses to accept himself as Muslim-American, and in the process projects his fears and hatred onto others.
It is incredibly easy to see why Disgraced won the Pulitzer. Directed by Kimberly Senior, its one act is meticulously constructed to masterfully build tension, and the characters manage to avoid stereotypes, even while representing specific racial and religious archetypes. Just when you think things have reached the ultimate boiling point, the plot has more tricks up its sleeve, just waiting to surprise you. While I could have done without one specific twist involving Emily that felt a bit too contrived and expected for such a smart play, Akhtar’s pacing and dialogue are smart and loaded. The cast, led by Dhillon’s powerful, difficult performance, is top notch, creating an intimacy that makes the audience feel like an uninvited guest in someone else’s home.
In light of recent events and the abundance of hatred that seems to exist in the world these days, this production could not be better timed. It is a crucial reminder about the importance of embracing your identity and not making assumptions about others that is all too needed.
Disgraced runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through July 17th. Tickets range from $25-$85 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org.