In recent years, the people of America have had a choice to make: a.) run directly into the clash of civilizations in our current society or b.) flee with their hands flailing above their heads. The middle ground in between is sparse. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar plants himself like an obelisk in this no man’s land. Over the course of 90 minutes shared between the audience and five actors, the blurred lines between Church and State—or in this case, Mosque and State—are explored.
With this performance, director Marc Robin and Fulton Theatre boldly seize the influence they have built in the theatre world over the Mid-Atlantic region, allowing this play to speak from the intimate Tell Studio Theatre in a time when this clash is happening in full view of every person living in America today.The 99 theatre seats are placed in a completely white, very trendy Manhattan condominium complete with leather upholstered dining chairs, a terrace overlooking the Big Apple, and—because it wouldn’t be a straight play without it—a chic cocktail bar topped off with a bottle of 12-year Macallan single-malt scotch and a piece of modern art hanging on the wall above.
As I take my seat, I immediately feel like an unwelcome fly on the wall. The opulence of William James Mohney’s set design is beautiful, but it seems to emanate a violent vibration out into the audience. This is a place of intimate family life, but Patrick Bateman’s apartment from the psychological thriller American Psycho will not leave my mind. The trappings of the American Dream are staring us in the face, but when the first scene opens with a Pakistani man being sketched by his caucasian wife, Disgraced begins to peel back the facade and show us the real America that we find ourselves living in: a Melting Pot, boiling over.
Keeping true to form, this play has a small cast: two couples and a younger character finding his way in the world. But in Disgraced, both sets of married people are from mixed races and the fifth person is being questioned for ties to an Islamic extremist group. Each actor is a powerhouse. Amir and Emily—played by Abhi Katyal and Liz Shivener respectively—give the audience a convincing look into the harsh realities of two people trying to love one another while deeply acknowledging a total lack of shared experience in their cultural upbringing. Andrew Kindig and Erinn Holmes are the co-workers of the central couple who bring their own agendas and secrets when they are invited over for dinner and drinks. The aforementioned Abe—played by Zal Owen—is a Muslim man caught between assimilation or rejection of the role the early 21st century is pushing him to play.
The tension in Disgraced feels like the final rounds of chess when the pawns have all been cleared away and there’s nothing to be done but watch and see which king will fell the other. Is it even possible for there to be a clear winner when violence and abdication are the primary tools used to get one’s point across? In the end, nobody is left unscathed. Centuries of misunderstanding have laid the foundation that both the audience and these characters find themselves standing on.
I believe theatre is the best place to exorcise the demons that we find in ourselves. It is the place for fleshing out the infectious isolation that is caused by setting up these white-walled condominiums around ourselves. We the audience are invited to sit in and watch five people tear each other apart. There’s an inner voice telling you to run, that you shouldn’t be in these people’s business.
Theatre is the only place you can’t push pause. In a play, you can’t tap a button and make the LEDs stop showing you uncomfortable realities. I haven’t felt that fight-or-flight gut reaction in any other media; not even in Facebook comments or my Twitter feed. Disgraced is there, living and breathing in front of you, and you are commanded to pause and reflect: “How xenophobic am I?” “How naive to the contents of the Quran or the practice of Islam?” “How entitled am I to continue enjoying the American Dream while others are risking everything for just a glimpse?”
Disgraced does not seem to give many answers. I don’t know if even the author has faith that we will have reconciled our differences before our grandchildren become the next legislators. I do know that these questions have to be asked. The lives captured by Ayad Akhtar must be observed and allowed to ruminate in audiences’ minds for as long as it takes for us to move forward. Theatre and all of the Arts must be kept alive; to buy us more time; to further this American experiment.
Disgraced runs through 12 March at the Tell Studio Theatre at The Fulton in Lancaster, PA. Tickets can be purchased through the box office or by visiting www.thefulton.org.