Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced opens with a lawyer being drawn by his artist wife—in his underwear. It’s the first of many moments that provoke the audience with uncomfortable situations that question our romantic notions of other cultures while also pointing out the complications of our own multicultural society.
Directed by the talented Kim Tobin-Lehl, Disgraced is part of the last season of the 4th Wall Theatre Company, which recently announced its closure after seven years. I was personally very saddened by this as I reviewed their production of Lobby Hero earlier this year, and I thought it was easily one of the best productions of the year. Houston will miss the artistic leadership of both Tobin-Lehl and her husband and co-artistic director, Philip Lehl. The company was notable in that they emphasized putting artistic pay first—one that garnered them some of the best acting talent in the city.
As for the play, a bright set of an Upper East Side New York apartment (designed by Kevin Rigdon) sets the stage for Amir and Emily, a married couple whose cultural backgrounds clash. American-born Amir rejects his Muslim upbringing, considering is barbaric and backward, while Emily, a white woman, romanticizes the Muslim tradition to the point of making it the focal point of her most recent visual art. Isaac (Philip Lehl), a curator at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, warns her that she will be accused of “Orientalism,” and that charge might be a fair accusation.
Akhtar’s play chips away at the idea that those who come to America necessarily want to bring their home country’s traditions with them; on the contrary, Amir seems the least enthusiastic about his cultural background of anyone around him. To him, it is a liability—an impediment to realizing his ambitions in the legal world. Amir (Gopal Divan) comes across as cocky and dismissive, eager to jettison his family’s Muslim traditions, even as his nephew Abe (Ash Slaughter) wants to hold on to his Muslim identity in more concrete ways.
Emily’s painting, a modernized version of motifs from the Muslim world, sits squarely in the center of the set—a jarring reminder that her homage to her husband’s culture is also crudely caught up in her own artistic ambitions, bringing up questions of appropriation and exploitation. The apartment and lives of Emily and Amir are explicitly modern, but the pressures to treat women in the way that Amir has been brought up come to the forefront when he beats her after realizing she has committed adultery.
Although I found the storyline unbelievable, the tension between the characters throughout the play rings true, and it is that conflict among the characters—whether Jewish, white, black, or Pakistani, which propels the drama forward. Emily romanticizes the “profound submission” required of adherents to the Muslim faith, with the Arabic word “Islam” literally translating to “submission.” But that is a submission she would never subject herself to—and everyone knows it. Emily says “irony is overrated,” yet fails to see the dramatic irony in her own hypocrisies. Her identity as an artist usurps all other loyalties, and her pronouncements seem hollow when juxtaposed by her own pleas for Amir to have more respect for a culture he obsessively rejects.
Conflict escalates when Isaac brings his wife, Jory (Michelle Elaine), to dinner at Amir and Emily’s apartment, only to reveal to the audience that Jory has been promoted to partner in the law firm where Amir was hoping to rise. The resentment against the political correctness of the corporate world mirrors the frustrations of religious correctness that plague Amir’s own household. In any case, there is the suggestion of racism and unfairness, but the audience does not have enough information to know the truth.
Disgraced forces the audience to wonder who exactly has been “disgraced,” and why. Is it Amir, the Muslim who has rejected his religion as something as outmoded as the founding fathers in America—the example he uses to point out his own wife’s contradictory stances? Is it Emily, who reveres a culture that would stone women for the very adultery she committed against Amir? Or is Akhtar making a larger statement about the disgrace of privileging one culture over another in multicultural America? Probably a combination of these.
Well-acted and fast paced, this 85-minute show keeps the audience engaged at every turn, and leaves you thinking about the cultural politics that permeate the worlds of art and corporate America in a way that is clearly entwined. No matter your politics, you will leave thinking about assimilation and the multicultural condition of American culture long after the last lines are spoken.
Disgraced. Thru Sept. 30. 4th Wall Theatre Company, Studio 101, 1824 Spring St. 832-786-1849. Buy tickets here.