Donald Trump’s campaign promise to ban all Muslims from entering the United States raised hackles among many in the Jewish community whose own ancestors were made to feel unwelcome in this country a century ago. A Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, which opened Oct. 11 at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, plumbs the tortured soul of a wealthy Pakistani-American attorney who struggles, in the current age of what many (including at the second presidential debate) are calling Islamophobia, to reconcile his own American and Muslim identities.
When Disgraced opened on Broadway in 2014, Ben Brantley of The New York Times called it a “terrific, turbulent drama.” It is now the most frequently produced play in the country, with 18 different productions to date. The McCarter production, which is directed by Marcela Lorca, transferred intact from the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, with the notable exception of the actor playing the lead; Bhavesh Patel has been replaced by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh.
As the play opens, Amir (Ebrahimzadeh) is trying to become a name partner at his Manhattan law firm, which specializes in mergers and acquisitions — the other name partners are all Jewish. His wife, Emily (Caroline Kaplan), who is white and Christian, has ambitions of her own; she is a painter who is hoping that their friend Isaac (Kevin Isola), who is Jewish, will include a work of hers in a show that he is curating at the Whitney Museum.
Amir’s career hits a tailspin, though, when he accedes to the wishes of his nephew Abe (Adit Dileep) and appears at a hearing for a Muslim cleric who has been accused of raising funds to support terrorism. The play comes to a head at a dinner party scene in Amir and Emily’s luxury apartment, in which Isaac and his African-American wife, Jory (Austene Van) — a colleague of Amir’s who is also trying to become a name partner — get into a heated debate with Amir in which his feelings about his heritage are finally laid bare.
In a YouTube interview that appears on the McCarter website, Akhtar explained that the play is about a “corporate attorney of Pakistani origin who hides his Pakistani and Muslim identity from his mostly Jewish bosses.” The main theme, he suggested, is “rupture” from the past and “renewal” in the present, which, he said, Americans do all the time, even in moving from one part of the country to another or leaving their families of origin and starting new ones.
The problem, he said, is in “not mourning the rupture,” but pretending, as Amir does, that it has not taken place or is of no significance.
Emily Mann, the longtime artistic director of the McCarter, has frequently brought her own Jewish identity to bear in the many plays she has written, such as Annulla, about a Jewish woman who pretends to be an Aryan in Nazi Germany. In an interview, Mann told NJJN that she encountered Disgraced for the first time when she was writing her own documentary-style play about radical Islam. She was fascinated by Disgraced because Akhtar was, in her words, “not toeing the party line about what is acceptable to say about his own people and about all of us. The Muslim, Jewish, WASP and African-American characters are shown warts and all. It’s a combustible mix in which all the messiness of being human comes out.”
One of the most important revelations in the play, Mann said, is a childhood memory that Amir tells in which his mother spat in his face when he told her that he had a crush on a Jewish girl. “That’s the shame of his life,” Mann explained. “It shows how people are trained early to hate other people.” Mann finds the play to be extremely timely, not just because of the Trump campaign, but because of the terrorist bombings last month in both Manhattan and Seaside Park.
The playwright, Mann added, “sees where the fissures and blemishes are in his own tradition” and “nails where the anti-Semitism in the Muslim community comes from.” But he also understands the “tension between those who want to assimilate and those who do not.” The play “keeps the audience off balance, making it hard for them to pick sides from one moment to the next.”
Mann said she hopes that the audience will be a diverse one, with people of all different faiths who will take part in the talk-back that is scheduled after every performance.
Ebrahimzadeh, who just stepped into the role of Amir, called his character a “tragic, absurdly complicated figure” who has a sense of “broken identity.” Amir, he said, “tries to shrug off the chains of people’s assumptions about him based on how he looks and where he comes from. He bears a lifetime of repression, which leads to a collapse under the weight of pressures that he’s been dealing with his whole life.”
The actor, who was born in Iran but grew up in the United States, said that America still often requires immigrants to “reject their culture in order to fit in.” An important symbol in the play, Ebrahimzadeh said, is a painting that Amir’s wife does of him, in which Emily takes inspiration from a famous work by Diego Velázquez in which the Spanish Baroque artist depicted his slave, Juan de Pareja, who was also his assistant, posing in a lace collar and fancy clothes. But unlike de Pareja, the actor noted, Amir “wears a ridiculously expensive suit and shirt every day.”
Caroline Kaplan, who plays Emily, is the only Jewish member of the cast, although her character is not Jewish. The actress, who grew up in Larchmont, NY, said she enjoys playing Emily because, she said, “Emily wants to communicate the beauty in Islamic art that has spoken so directly to her.” Ironically, though, “while Emily is very gifted at painting, she doesn’t actually see a lot of what’s right in front of her.”
Kaplan hopes that Disgraced will resonate with Jewish audience members because the Jewish community is “no stranger to being discriminated against, and from the fact that we are all outsiders on a certain level. How can we overcome the barriers in our society that are so present and real?”