Art Imitating Life?: “Disgraced” at McCarter Theater

Every semester, the theatre department at Muhlenberg College requires students taking certain theatre classes to see a production off campus. The Pulitzer Prize winning play Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar at Princeton’s the McCarter Theater was chosen as that production for this semester. It was critically acclaimed when it premiered on Broadway and I was very excited to see it because I had not previously read the play before. Everything that occurred on stage came as a surprise to me and I was thrilled that a lot of the issues in the play paralleled directly with what we have been learning in class these last few weeks.

The play follows the life of a lawyer, Amir Kapoor, who practices Islam as he tries to navigate a world that is less than welcoming to him. The climax of the play happens during the dinner party that Amir and his wife host in their Upper East Side apartment for his coworker, Jory, a woman of color and her husband, Isaac, a white Jewish man. What starts out as a friendly get together quickly turns into a political debate about the state of the nation once the couples get a few drinks in them. I do not want to spoil too much of the play because a lot of the action occurs as shock value. I will say though that things are said over dinner that make the discussion less than appetizing. Microinsults (Sue, 2010) are said by both Isaac and Amir about each other and how the United States treats Muslims. At one point, Isaac claims that Amir did not get the job he wanted because the firm thought he was unstable. Despite Amir’s outstanding work performance it was clear that they did not want Amir’s Middle Eastern-sounding last name on the name of the firm alongside all of the other Jewish-sounding last names. Isaac is a complicated character in that he is married to a woman of color and yet he still seems to harbor prejudicial thoughts.

This play was written post-9/11. In 2012 to be exact. We are now four years later and Islamophobia is still an issue in this country, so much so that it was addressed in the second presidential debate. The candidates did not handle the question on islamaphobia well and I remember particularly Senator Clinton commenting on how we need the help of Muslim citizens to report to authorities if they see suspicious activity. This can also be seen as a form of microaggression towards Muslims because it assumes that Muslims will be in situations where suspicious activity like terrorism might occur. When the subject of Islam is represented in the media it is often in relation to Isis or the Taliban and rarely is this particular religion shed in a good light. For me, this play showed the complexities that Muslims have to face as citizens in a country that is not always the most receiving to them.

When I was discussing the show with a professor here at Muhlenberg, I mentioned how I did not like the acting of Amir’s nephew in the play. The nephew had to be of Middle Eastern decent to make it believable that he would be mistaken for a terrorist at the coffee shop and interrogated as he describes in the third scene. My professor agreed that the actor playing the nephew did not know how to act but his response was “Well, there aren’t a lot of Middle Eastern actors so they had to take what they could get.” This perplexed me. It is true that there are not a lot of plays in the theatre canon with Middle Eastern characters. You could say that Ali Hakim from the musical Oklahoma is one of them, but he is more of a caricature of Persian culture than he is a realistic representation on stage. I felt that by casting the person that they did in the role of the nephew, they were perpetuating the stereotype that there is a low talent pool for Middle Eastern actors. Is the lack of Middle Eastern actors a valid reason for why this untalented actor was cast in such a prestigious theatre company? I am not sure, but everyone else who I talked to also seemed to seriously question the casting director’s decision for that role in particular.

I encourage anyone to go see this production of Disgraced at the McCarter Theater, but it is only running until October 30. There might be other productions at other regional theaters so there might still be a chance to see it at a theatre near you and I would highly recommend that you do.

My question to think about is, what are some ways in which we can combat Islamophobia in this country? Do plays like Disgraced help to do that even when they have moments of stereotypical attitudes concealed in them?