If writer/actor Ayad Akhtar sounds a bit put-upon, he can be forgiven. He’s done a lot of interviews since his play “Disgraced,” in which a diverse dinner party gets heated around issues of religion, politics and terrorism, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013.
Akhtar, who is Pakistani-American, has had to answer an endless stream of questions about what it means to be Muslim in America. He’s also had to fend off erstwhile supporters accusing him of airing dirty laundry when he should present pretty stage pictures of well-adjusted Muslims.
People who crave postcard images should “hire an ad agency,” said Akhtar, whose play opens Friday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Nor is he interested in rote portraits of crazed jihadis.
“There’s such mindless reductionism everywhere,” he said.
Akhtar’s goal is to get into the gnarly psyche of his characters — to show their grays, their colors, their grace. In other words, he hopes to do as the Greeks and Shakespeare did: use art as mirror, compass and light.
“I’m not writing about people I see as ‘other,’ ” Akhtar said. “My job is to render them as characters vividly. If that means they’re going to have flaws, then that’s what that means.”
His breakout play, “Disgraced,” tops American Theatre Magazine’s list of the most often professionally staged plays, with 18 productions in the 2015-16 season.
A 90-minute one-act, it is set at a posh apartment on New York’s Upper East Side. The hosts are Amir, a Pakistani-American corporate lawyer, and his wife, Emily, a white artist. While Amir has become disconnected from his heritage, Emily has a keen interest in Islamic traditions.
Their dinner guests include Amir’s colleague Jory, who is African-American, and her art dealer husband Isaac, who is Jewish. In the background, Amir is being pressured by his nephew, Abe, to stand with an imam suspected of supporting terrorism.
“People look at the multicultural group and say it’s contrived, but that’s my reality, and the reality of lot of people I know,” said Akhtar, who was born in New York to two Pakistani-American doctors and grew up in suburban Milwaukee.
Finance vs. art
His father hoped Akhtar would pursue medicine or finance. But he wanted to be a creative artist.
A longtime fan of Woody Allen’s work, he found himself drawn to the works of influential Martinique-born philosopher-psychiatrist Frantz Fanon while an undergraduate at Brown University. Those twin influences, of witty writing and deep psychological delving, show up in his work on the page and the stage.
If not for 9/11, Akhtar, who is 45, might have become an artist with different obsessions. He grew up around Islam but considers himself secular. But the terror attacks changed much, and although he writes on a range of subjects in various genres, nearly all deal with religion in some way.
He co-wrote and starred in “The War Within,” a much discussed 2005 film about terrorism. His script was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. His buzzy 2012 debut novel, “American Dervish,” about a Pakistani-American boy growing up in a secular family in the Midwest, has been translated into 20-plus languages.
Most recently he’s written about money and greed in “Junk: The Golden Age of Debt,” a play about capitalism opening soon in San Diego. He acted in “Too Big to Fail,” the 2011 HBO film about the economic meltdown, playing Neel Kashkari, the former Treasury official who is now president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
But “Disgraced” is his most successful work, and one that has made him a kind of reluctant spokesperson.
To say you’re Muslim is like claiming pariah status, he said.
Audience to join the debate
The playwright hopes to get to Minnesota, where Guthrie audiences are being invited to stay for discussions after each performance of “Disgraced,” moderated by Guthrie staff and officials from the Islamic Resource Group, an educational organization.
“In our world of fast-paced media, where there’s pressure to quickly like or dislike something, this will give people a chance to breathe, and to consider some of the complexities of what it means to be American and Muslim and human,” said Marcela Lorca, the play’s director.
Lorca has staged some of the Guthrie’s most memorable shows, including Tony Kushner’s musical “Caroline, or Change” and, with Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, “The Burial at Thebes.” She said Akhtar’s work, which has absorbed her for nearly a year, is thrillingly layered.
“I think he’s one of the greatest playwrights of our time. There’s nuance, depth and richness at every line.”
Lorca, a Chilean-American, said that simplistic notions about immigrants can be a barrier to understanding, especially in the political realm.
“The play has its own potency because of the issues it’s bringing out,” she said. “And it’s energetically in conversation with all of these events that happen, from violence and terrorism to prejudice.”
For his part, Akhtar is thankful for the opportunity to have a voice and creative outlets. “Junk,” which orbits a crew of Wall Street hotshots, has a cast of 25. Such an epic-scale production is possible only because of “Disgrace,” a door opener to his ambition.
“No single work can ever tell about an artist,” he said. “ ‘Hamlet’ is Shakespeare’s greatest work, but you would have no idea of his range if that’s all you had.”