Disgraced: A Confirmation Fantasy

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren (Chicago Sun-Times)

Over the past weekend, I attended a performance of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer winning play, Disgraced, at the Goodman Theatre.  Given the acclaim and the premise of the play, I was intrigued and had been wanting to see it for quite some time. So I was thrilled when it returned to Chicago.

But that’s about where my interest ended.

About the play itself, the main character, Amir Kapoor, is an American-born Muslim lawyer who has left his religion and even his real name far behind him. His wife, Emily, is an aspiring artist who focuses on Islamic art and themes.  They host Isaac, a Jewish art dealer/curator (it’s not entirely clear), and Jory, Amir’s co-worker at his law firm, for a dinner that erupts into a clash of religious identities and some deep-hidden truths.

I can’t deny this is an ambitious play.  Religion. Identity.  The seeming intention of the play is nicely summed up by Emily when she says, “We have to look beyond the optics, and see people for who the truly are”.  A wonderful notion.  Unfortunately, Akhtar then proceeds to show us who people truly are are the most basic of generalizations and stereotypes.  There is no actual depth to Akhtar’s characters.  And the religious-fueled clash that occurs between Amir and Isaac is one of the most superficial and simplistic of clashes.  References to 9/11, sympathizing with terrorists, and Israel are all brought up as topics and ammunition during what I could only describe as what a high schooler considers a controversial discussion about religion.

And then there’s the cheap dramatics.  Without giving away anything, instead of giving the audience something to mull over, to really ponder over, or to really take in the weight of his words, Akhtar goes for sensationalist statements and actions from the characters.  It cheapens the already failed ambition of trying to delve beyond optics.  Such heavy topics should be deftly handled, and Akhtar has not shown the talent to do that.

And that’s just how I feel about the writing.

The bigger problem is the stereotypes, err, characters of Amir Kapoor and his nephew, Abe.  These characters are essentially what I can only call a “confirmation fantasy” for everyone who thinks all Muslims in America are terrorist sympathizers and only think in terms of “us vs. them”.  There is no nuance.  There is no opposing perspective.  There is no depth.  It is a broad strokes representation of a character that, as a Muslim in America, I can barely relate to.  And I don’t expect to relate to every Muslim character on stage or screen, because I know that Muslims are as diverse as any other population. But is the rest of the audience, who may not be as exposed to Muslims, able to discern that by the characters presented here? No, I don’t think they can.

Which brings me to this: I’m not entirely sure what Akhtar’s goal was with this play. What he meant to convey.  But, for this audience member, it comes across as pandering to people’s perceptions of Muslims, which, in this current climate of Islamophobia, renders this play an incredibly irresponsible piece of work.

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