BWW Previews: DISGRACED at Center Stage Theater
As a fairly homogenous population, Santa Barbara has a limited range of viewpoints it can offer through the theatrical medium. Yet there's audience (and performer!) desire to respond to the current social climate. In regards to the problematic race relations we see all over this country, plays like Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced bring a fresh, necessary voice to the local stage. Disgraced examines the American experience from a variety of viewpoints: a Jewish-American man, an African-American woman, a white woman, and Amir, the play's tragic lead, who is from an Islamic background-the child of Middle-Eastern immigrants. Disgraced is an award-winning piece of literature that delivers an intense, intelligent discourse about race and privilege, and a jarring exploration of the stratifications and compartmentalization of American culture.
Amir (Fajer Al-Kaisi) has cut most ties to his Muslim upbringing in favor of being present in mainstream American life. He's an attorney with a luxurious lifestyle and a privileged, white wife (Vahanian). But Amir's Muslim heritage runs afoul of his American identity when he's compelled by his wife, Emily, and his nephew (Samip Raval) to make an appearance at a (very public) trial with Islamic implications. The devastating consequences of Amir's sudden affiliation with the Muslim community are realized when Amir and Emily (a painter who's exploring Islamic influence in her work) throw a dinner party with another couple: Jory (Rasool Jahan), Amir's colleague, and her partner, Abe (Ryan McCarthy), Emily's art dealer. A conversation about their experiences in a country with a deep racial awareness has tragic results for Amir, whose identity is shattered by the recognition that despite his compliance with American society, his heritage will always makes him a target for ostracization. "These are intelligent, educated, conscientious people that get the wool pulled out from under them," says Vahanian of the play's conclusion. "They get totally leveled."
Vahanian, a local actress with performance credits from all over the world, is the impetus behind mounting Disgraced in Santa Barbara. She recently concluded touring a run of the show with Ping Pong Arts in China, and before that, she performed in Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage production. Produced by The Producing Unit, Disgraced brings members of the Arena Stage production and the Ping Pong Arts tour to reprise their roles. Vahanian describes playing Emily as a changing experience that compelled her to explore the nuances of her own views on our culture, and she's delighted to bring this experience to Santa Barbara audiences. Vahanian reminds that this is not a play about Islamophobia, but one about relationships and identity perception within a particular cultural context. She stresses that Disgraced is a play that makes people reexamine their beliefs-and one that sparks conversation. Even in China, she recalls, where the idea of the American Dream is less immediate, Disgraced elicited visceral cathartic audience reactions. "The more I'm with this play," Vahanian says, "the more I look at myself within this matrix of what we've created. I've been examining my white privilege in a way I hadn't before."
Disgraced brings a cast that's passionate enough about this play to have traveled the world with these characters, and a locally uncommon viewpoint about current, substantial subject matter. The play begins like Amir's apartment and lifestyle: clean, tidy, and maintained. But when his family pressures him to stand up for social justice, an act that's in direct conflict with his personal wishes to remain disconnected from the Muslim community, the comfort of his upper-class life begins to unravel. The tidiness and political correctness fall away, and a "civilized" dinner conversation turns Disgraced into a play about points of no return.
Disgraced will run at Center Stage Theater in Santa Barbara for one weekend only, September 28-October 1, 2017, with 8 p.m. shows September 28-30, and 2 p.m. matinees September 30-October 1. One of the top ten most-produced plays in America for both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 theatre season, Disgraced is inspiring a national dialogue about everything from cultural appropriation in the art world to identity politics to what it means to be an American. There will be a post-show discussion will follow each performance.
The Producing Unit Presents:
By Ayad Akhtar
Center Stage Theater
September 28-October 1