By Ayad Akhtar
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
Disgraced is a play, a short play, one act in four scenes; with five characters: Amir and Emily, a married couple; Isaac and Jory, another couple; and Abe, a relative. The names might give away the basic dynamic of the play: ethnic and religious identity, hidden and revealed, repudiated and embraced, for good and for ill.
Amir is an American Pakistani, who is unsure of his place in American society. He is a lawyer, torn between the defense of those persecuted for their religious or national affiliation and the affirmation that might come from the prestigious law firm that pays his salary. He is also a Muslim. Or was.
This struggle overflows into his marriage to Emily, an up-and-coming artist, celebrating at some point in the play her selection for inclusion in an important exhibition. She is thrilled, but the elation is undermined by the counterpoint erupting all over Amir.
Isaac and Jory come for dinner, too early, as it turns out, and that infuses the event with its first level of tension. As it turns out, that is the least of the problems that emerge, problems that eventually undermine nearly everything: relationships, careers, identities.
The play was first performed in 2012, and the setting is 2011, in New York City. That is a mere decade after 9-11, when America was still struggling with how to understand Islam, especially radical Islam. That decade was enough for Ayad Akhtar to ruminate on these things and produce this stellar piece of cultural commentary. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. So there!
Amir struggles with the national and religious side of his heritage. He is not sure he can reveal his Pakistani nationality, and he is certain he is uncomfortable with his Islamic faith—or what is left of it. With more than a tinge of irritation, he plays the devil’s advocate when it comes to religion, consumed with the contemporary western criticism of the most disagreeable elements of historic Islam. He doesn’t know what to do with them even as he throws them into the dinner-date dialogue. We have all been there, working out the shadow side of our own religion, our own nationality, even our own personality.
Reading a play is different that reading other things. There is the text on the page but missing are the actors and their interpretation, the stage and its decoration, the director and her determination to make the play into what it could never be while remaining on the printed page. Which is why Ahktar writes in the introduction, “Absence, then, is the reigning principle of a written play …”
A play is so much more than the script. In that sense, it is like a sermon, with which I am so familiar. It is one thing to read a sermon, and I have read hundreds even thousands. But hearing a sermon, experiencing a sermon, being carried along by a sermon is so much more; especially when the preacher (shall we say the performer?) understands the performative character of the profession.
I hope, however, few of my homiletic performances end with the despair that pulls down this dramatic narrative into the disappointment that must have swallowed each of the five characters, much like the great fish swallowed Jonah. Everything collapses; and we are left to wonder if there is for Amir and for Emily a reprise, a second act like we find in the drama of Jonah, a redemptive if surprising finish that shocks the reader even more than the one and only act of this play.