“Donald Trump should come see it,” a theatergoer blurted out after a recent performance of Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” at the Guthrie Theater.
There were lots of nods in agreement and some applause as well among the 100 or so people who stayed to discuss the show they’d just seen.
“Disgraced” is this summer’s talker in Twin Cities theater. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play orbits Amir, a high-powered New York lawyer who disdains his Pakistani-American heritage. But he finds himself in unfamiliar territory when an imam at a local mosque is accused of funding terrorism.
The Guthrie is holding conversations after each staging to let patrons dive into the issues it raises. “Any time there is the opportunity to forge deeper connection and conversation around the work that we produce is thrilling to me, as it represents theater at its most relevant, necessary and resonant,” said Guthrie artistic director Joe Haj, whose own parents were Palestinian immigrants.
Actor Bhavesh Patel, who plays Amir, has attended many of the “talkbacks,” often as a spectator. What strikes him is the smart, honest way that theatergoers have handled the questions of identity, career and culture that “Disgraced” poses. They seem to get the complexity of what it means to be Muslim and American, said Patel, whose family is from India.
His character truly believes in the promise of America as a place where you can remake yourself in your own image and dreams, Patel noted. “And if that means shucking heritage, then it means shucking heritage,” he said. “It’s what people mean when they say someone has transcended race or gender, never mind the problems inherent in such statements.”
Theatergoers, many of whom shared personal stories, said they appreciated the drama because it showed the nuances and complexities around Americans of the Muslim faith at a moment when there are heated discussions about Islamophobia, terrorism and the American dream.
One grizzled graybeard said that Amir made him feel uncomfortable, and wondered why. Another patron, a woman, said she appreciated the fact that the play presented Amir as deeply flawed, but also real, so his faults are not all that we remember about him.
“His humanness resonated with mine,” said theatergoer Laurie Olson of St. Paul. “I felt compassion for him as someone who’s betrayed at home and at the office. If anyone’s judging his actions, you have to ask: Whose ego wouldn’t come roaring out after being humiliated like he was?”
Layers of identity
Last Thursday’s post-play discussion featured Nehrwr Abdul-Wahid, a Twin Cities consultant who tries to bridge the Muslim-American cultural gap through the locally based Islamic Resource Group. He told the crowd about his conversion to Islam at 15 and his international travels as an ambassador for his faith.
“We all have many layers to our identity, and how we identify at the moment depends on the circumstances,” he said. For example, he once asked members of an all-female group to describe themselves. None listed her gender. That would have been different if the group had included men, he said.
But in an atmosphere of fear or loathing, people may not be able to choose the identities that they put forward, Abdul-Wahid intimated. Amir may be a corporate lawyer. He may live in fancy digs with a white wife. But the background he thought he left behind may be the first thing people see.
“That’s what Amir discovers, and it’s part of what’s so shattering for him,” said Austene Van, who plays a colleague of Amir’s. “He has lived his life saying, ‘I am this.’ Now, the world is telling him, ‘No, you’re really this.’ ”
Abdul-Wahid said he welcomes “Disgraced” because it helps people see a Muslim-American character in a three-dimensional way even if he does some bad things. The play also helps theatergoers to empathize with a character who, in the political discourse, may be reduced to black-and-white.
“The arts are showing the humanity and justice that’s lacking in the political sphere,” Abdul-Wahid said.
The play’s director, Marcela Lorca, and Haj, whose staging of “South Pacific” is also playing the Guthrie now, will have a public discussion at 7:30 p.m. Monday about race, otherness and the contemporary resonances in both works.
Lorca, who also attended last Thursday’s talkback but did not speak, said her goal in staging “Disgraced” was to have it “sing a sincere song from the big stage to the audience.”
At least one of those at Thursday’s talkback thought Lorca was successful.
“It’s about time we had something so honest, so truthful,” said Delores Fridge, a retired ombudsman at Medtronic. “I applaud the theater and the actors for this great work.”