BWW Review: Ayad Ahktar's DISGRACED Presents Profound Dilemmas in MKE Rep's Fierce Production
A cozy, celebratory dinner party in a cosmopolitan New York penthouse ignites irreversible damage between friends in Ayad Ahktar's 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning play Disgraced now on stage at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's Quadracci Powerhouse. Eventually, each character in the no intermission production will somehow be disgraced-sometimes by their personal identity, religion or culture and determined through their own specific actions or reactions to another person. The Rep becomes the third theater company to mount Disgraced in a co-production with Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater and New Jersey's McCarter Theatre in what has become the most produced play in 2016. One only needs to attend to understand why this potent combination of contemporary dilemmas facing Americans personally and politically drew the country's theatrical attention.
Written in 2011, Ahktar's play perhaps prophesied the growing dichotomy between the country's diversity. Disgraced's main character Amir Kapoor (a polished, emotionally reactive actor Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), is an American Muslim who left his religion behind to become a Manhatten corporate lawyer and marries a Caucasian wife, Emily, (the delicate, warm Janie Brookshire), who works as an artist seeking success at New York's prestigious Whitney Museum. An African American women Jory, (the outspoken, sensual Austene Van) reaches for the golden rung of success as does Amir because they both practice law at the same law firm, each hoping to make partner.
Interestingly, Jory's Jewish husband, Issac, (an astute, sophisticated actor Jason Babinsky), curates art exhibitions at the Whitney and Emily wishes to impress him with her own paintings inspired by centuries old Islamic art. The unique foursome struggles with their social status, personal identity, marital relationships and success with conversations sometimes induced by too much alcohol.
Only one actor, Van's Jory, performed in all three productions at three different theaters, which she explained at The Rep in Depth to be an exciting opportunity. Along with Van, three time Director Marcela Lorca continues to sensitively pace the production, quickening the fury as the couples' frustrations spontaneous combust on an elegant stage design by James Youmans and complimented by Ana Kusmanic's fashion worthy costumes.
Another character, Amir's teen-age nephew Abe (or at times Hussein, depending on which personal identity the youth channels for believable, passionate actor Imran Sheikh) also transforms the course of events when he asks his Uncle Amir to defend an imprisoned Imam thought to work as Muslim terrorist. Amir originally changed his own name to appear to be of Indian descent and become more accepted in American corporate society, and questions his nephew's motives.
While Amir at first refuses the request, he then accepts his nephew's pleas for help with reservations. What transpires in the following 80 minutes rages over the stage and audience similar to flames consuming burning bushes in fiery reality. For the finale, Abe, now calling himself Hussein, deftly relates with concern with his own discoveries from the confusion these he and these four adults face in determining their personal and corporate identities within varying American societal cultures.
With only five characters, Aktar presents his audiences challenging circumstances and questions: the place of art (Velázquez and his painting "Portrait of Juan de Pareja) and visual images in history or society, the position of acquiring prestige to achieve the American Dream, and how significant factors in personal lives, such as gender, religion, physical features, birth place,culture, et. al.) affect personal and social identity.
So potently relevant is Aktar's play and The Rep's production, that the company names the performance Act I, and the half hour discussion groups to follow, Act II. These groups were well worth the time and emphasized the extreme contemporary significance of Disgraced. The Rep's effort to have patrons seriously consider two issues-- which character spoke to them as an individual and what personal part of an audience member's identity influenced their life---offers additional insight to the production. While attending a performance may be one portion of theater, contemplating the waning heat of these hot topics completes another.
In one Act II group, a woman with an invisible disability, a health condition, related how this influenced her childhood and future. Another young man mentioned the distinct differences between how his parents raised him, while drawing on another set of standards for his sister. A mature woman engineer worked at NASA for 40 years on the space shuttle, one of a very few women in the program during that era, and had hoped to see the end of career/gender discrimination in her lifetime. This was her response to another young woman college student who left a Physics major because of the gender harassment she experienced, and then changed her major to philosophy. When will the disgrace people place on themselves and each other end? One only has to be horrified by what transpires at Aktar's dinner party to understand the consequences of each disgrace hurled at ourselves or another even if Aktar leaves some elements to the audience's imagination, such as Jory and Issac immediate future.
Compelling and commanding, demanding the audiences immediate response, Disgraced needs to be appreciated, attended and apprised. Ahktar explosively exposes as Director Lorca discloses in her notes and stellar actress Meryl Streep claimed in her Golden Globe acceptance speech: "Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. [Hence, disrespect inflames disrespect.] We need to remind each other of the privilege and responsibility of the act of empathy.....Take your broken heart, make it into art."
Akhtar profoundly processed broken hearts into Pulitzer Prize winning art, theater, to face the disgrace in his characters. In doing so, he asks audiences to confront any and all disgrace in their own lives. A thousand accolades and standing ovations to MKE Rep for producing this fierce, award winning art in the city so each individual can move forward instead of into the past, break new ground in the future instead of more hearts and create constant empathy instead of disgrace-- to carry their own or another person's broken heart and build this identity into a life filled with art, meaning and respect.
Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents Ahad Aktar's Pulitzer Prize winning play Disgraced through February 12 at the Quadracci Powerhouse in the Patty and Jay Baker Theater complex. For special events, programming, performance schedule or tickets, please call: 414.224.9490 or visit: www.milwaukeerep.com