‘Islam comes from the desert,” says the character Amir over dinner at his lavish Manhattan apartment. “From a group of tough- minded, tough-living people who saw life as something … to be suffered. Jews reacted to the situation differently. They turned it over and over and over. I mean look at the Talmud. They’re looking at things from a hundred different angles. … Muslims don’t think about it. They submit.”
Amir is the central character of “Disgraced,” the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Ayad Akhtar, which opens next week on Broadway; it stars Hari Dhillon, Josh Radnor and Gretchen Mol, and features one of the most thought-provoking conversations about religion happening at a dinner table in New York.
Akhtar is a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter whose work explores the tensions that Muslim Americans experience between the secular and cultural facets of their lives. Recently he has been astoundingly prolific — in the past three years alone he completed a novel and three plays — but what comes across as a creative breakthrough for the writer is the refined outcome of rigorous writing and contemplation spanning 20 years.
“Disgraced,” Akhtar’s most celebrated and most produced play (it has been staged previously in Chicago, London, and Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theatre before arriving on Broadway this season), is a rare work in many respects. First, there is a person of color, specifically a South Asian American, in the lead role. Then there’s the subject matter, which explores religious doctrine, submerged bigotry, and self-ostracization — unusual fare at the theater. The play focuses its lens on Amir, a successful lawyer who has made every effort to distance himself from his Muslim upbringing. His wife Emily is a white, non-Muslim woman who, to Amir’s puzzlement, is inspired by Islamic art in her work as a painter. When the couple hosts Jory, an African-American woman and Amir’s colleague, and Isaac, a Jewish art curator and Jory’s husband, for a celebratory dinner, secrets and repressed viewpoints rise to the surface and threaten to destroy Amir’s sense of self.
While the play’s central sphere is Islam, discussion of Jews and Jewishness permeates the dialogue. The character of Isaac (Radnor) is entirely secular, yet when he is called out as a Jew and the conversation turns to pejorative views on Israel, he is affected on a visceral level. Watching “Disgraced,” it becomes clear that Akhtar is not only grappling with his own religion. He’s also asking broad questions about the interplay between Islam and Judaism.
Born to Pakistani parents in New York and raised in Milwaukee, Akhtar was not an active mosque-goer as a child, but spent many years in the company of “extended family members who were concerned to varying degrees with being good Muslims.” Perhaps surprisingly, it was a Jewish writer who lit the initial spark for Akhtar to explore, through writing, themes of religion and faith. A middle school reading of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” brought a palpable sense of recognition to Akhtar, foreign and familiar at the same time. “They had all the same divisions in the community and the same concerns with being holy,” he says of Potok’s chasidic characters. Within the following year, Akhtar sought out all of Potok’s other titles and found “My Name is Asher Lev” to be the most revelatory.
Sitting in a pastry shop near Columbia University, Akhtar, who unlike the character Amir, is soft spoken and gracious, reflects, “I remember getting to the end where [Asher Lev] walks out of the gallery, and I thought, ‘This is my life.’ I think I had some innate sense even before I had a thought that I would become an artist that there was this division between the old world and my own life that was irreconcilable and it was headed for some kind of rupture.”
That rupture would occur far more dramatically in Akhtar’s stories than in his life, but each story would mirror an element of his own experience: the curiosities, quandaries, and grapplings of a person wrestling with faith. When Akhtar began writing “Disgraced,” he had no assurance that it would interest theatergoers, let alone win the favor of the Pulitzer committee. He had had success with his first feature film, “The War Within,” which premiered at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival and portrayed a Pakistani man tasked with carrying out a terrorist plot (Akhtar co-wrote and starred in the film). But “Disgraced” was something very different. And, he says, “it took a production and a half to understand the larger dynamic of the play which had to do with wanting to belong, self-critique, and self-renewal.”
His novel, “American Dervish,” and his play, “The Who and the What” (which ran at Lincoln Center Theatre this summer), were also portrayals of Muslim Americans who question their place within Islam. Another play, “The Invisible Hand,” set in Pakistan, will debut at New York Theatre Workshop in November.
Akhtar is aware that writing so candidly about religion is a rarity, especially for a playwright. “I think earnestness is not as valued [in theater],” he suggests. “And issues of faith require earnest, direct technique. I think faith is one of the two or three important themes in American life, but it’s hard to find major writers writing about it. I mean even Chaim Potok — people do not speak of him in the same breath as the Roths and the Bellows.”
“American Dervish,” a well-received first novel that has already been published in multiple translations, reflects the influence of Potok, Roth and Bellow. It follows a young boy, Hayat Shah, who develops a fascination with the Koran under the guidance of Mina, a beautiful and brilliant family friend who leaves her home in Pakistan and an abusive marriage to live with Hayat’s family in the Midwest. Judaism enters the narrative when Nathan, a colleague of Hayat’s father, falls in love with Mina. In the novel, Akhtar’s ability to probe both religions is most evident, culminating in scene where Nathan vociferously defends Jewish people when he hears anti-Semitic rhetoric in a mosque.
The Muslims and Jews in Akhtar’s stories are, for the most part, not strict observers, yet they are connected by a palpable sense of tribalism, an extricable attachment to their own people, no matter how much they attempt to distance themselves. Akhtar is now at work on a sequel to “American Dervish” in which Hayat, as an adult, finds his way back to Islam, through his studies with a Kabbalistic teacher of all people. Reflecting on his continued source of insight, Akhtar admits, “It’s a very odd situation for a Muslim artist to have found most of his inspiration and his roadmap from Jewish American artists.”
As for the provocative and at times incendiary viewpoints of his characters, Akhtar’s eyes are wide open to the full breadth of audience reaction, particularly with a play as volatile as “Disgraced.” It’s worth noting that in Akhtar’s work, the characters who take issue with Islam are, by and large, not talking about terrorism. They’re talking about the basic tenets of the religion, the word of the Koran, and the guidance of Muslim mothers and fathers. In “Disgraced,” Amir recounts that he began to reject his religion when, as an adolescent, his mother condemned his crush on a Jewish girl. As Amir states, half-jokingly, “I wasn’t clear on what exactly a Jew was at the time, other than they’d stolen land from the Palestinians and something about how God hated them more than other people.” It’s a line that gets a laugh, though it’s undercut by an uncomfortable sense of hostility between the religions.
For his part, Akhtar admits that he’s grateful for Muslim advocates who speak publically in defense of Islam. And he recognizes that he may confuse or anger people who see his shows. But those reactions do not distract him from writing, from probing further. Presenting only a positive portrayal of Islam “is not an artistic project, it’s a public relations project,” he says.
There will inevitably be audience members who conjoin his plays’ viewpoints with Akhtar himself. “I think people expect me more to be writing from a place of double consciousness than I am,” he says. “My experience is my experience. It’s primary and I just write from that place.”
“Disgraced,” now in previews, opens Oct. 23 at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St. $37.50-$138. Disgracedonbroadway.com. For ticket information, (212) 239-6200, Telecharge.com.