“Not seeing you. Not seeing who you really are. Not until you started to deal with him. And the deftness with which you did that. You made him see the gap. Between what he was assuming about you, and what you really are.”
Ayad Akhtar's blistering play Disgraced explores subtle questions of relationships, race, class, ethnicity, religion, bigotry, and history in the 90 minute drama now playing at the Bush Theatre in London (I missed the show when it played at LCT3 in New York). Akhtar establishes fully formed characters and then crafts a story where they explode. The destruction is not just friendships and marriages, but the characters' own understanding of who they are.
A successful M&A attorney Amir Kapoor (Hari Dhillon) has turned his back on the Muslim faith in which he was raised. Not only that but he’s changed his name and told his law firm bosses he’s from India whereas his family’s hometown is in present-day Pakistan. When his boss thinks he’s Hindu he makes no effort to correct the misconception. He has married a white woman and an artist Emily (Kirsty Bushell) who becomes interested in incorporating Islamic art motifs into her own paintings. As part of her embrace of all things Muslim, she drags Amir into helping an imam at his nephew's mosque who has been arrested. His association with the imam is mentioned in the New York Times and questions about him begin at the office. During a dinner party with his African-American law firm crony Jory (Sara Powell) and her Jewish art dealer husband Isaac (Nigel Whitmey), rivalries, anger, and resentments spill out and polite and friendly conversation becomes toxic.
Most plays usually only scratch the surface on discussing hot button racial, cultural, and religious issues. Here, Akhtar succeeds at the much more challenging achievement of exploring the underbelly of dual cultural identities and getting under the skin of the characters to expose the deeply buried thoughts that the characters themselves did not even realize they possessed.
After living in New York for twenty years, I know that no matter how high up the social, financial, or fame ladder you climb, there is someone else inevitably still above you and they will remind you of that whether they intend to or not. The language of exclusion can be incredibly subtle. I recall once being trapped in a work conversation where the two topics were playing tennis with Supreme Court justices and sailing. I thought to myself, as non-tennis playing landlubber I have no way in here. I can try and pretend to fit in, but it is nothing but pretense.
Akhtar sets his story among the educated and wealthy elite in New York but the four main characters also each can claim outsider status in some way or another. The battle between insiders and outsiders rages on and Akhtar matches up a conversational foursome who think they share certain bonds and over the course of the evening, the disconnection is shown to be far greater than the connection. With great credit to Akhtar, the pairings keep changing. Conversational allies are swapped. Pre-conceived assumptions (by the audience AND the characters) have to be left by the wayside. And it is all in the careful construction of the writing.
Not knowing what is in each of their own hearts is what brings surprises to the play, the audience and the characters. Not realizing how far apart they all were from each other on these issues makes the play a space of discovery for all. And they are not happy discoveries.
I seemed to see a number of works about identity and connection during my London trip (After the Beginning. Before the End, Chimerica) but Disgraced set a high bar for the others that followed.
The cast is very good (with excellent American accents). In particular I thought Bushell played Emily’s naïveté well. And I liked Whitmey’s slippery Isaac. Dhillon did a great job with making Amir imperious but I wished he had been a bit stronger when Amir is humbled. Staged by Nadia Fall in a split stage so the audience is essentially forced to look at each other in this battle, the direction served the play well by keeping the action moving, the alliances murky, and the intimate moments vibrant.