Pulitzer Prize-winning play with Muslim protagonist divides America

Pulitzer Prize-winning play with Muslim protagonist divides America


While US audiences applauded the hit drama Disgraced, it has disturbed some Muslims who criticise it for playing up negative stereotypes

Bhavesh Patel, (centre) plays hot-shot lawyer Amir Kapoor in Disgraced, at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis (Image credits: Courtesy of the Guthrie Theater)
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Last update: 
Monday 17 October 2016 19:04 UTC

In September 2001, when the World Trade Center was still a smouldering wreck, then-US President George W Bush mulled a question that, he said, was on the lips of many Americans: “Why do they hate us?”

The query has been asked many times since - but seldom answered satisfactorily. A desire to explain the unfathomable can, in part, account for the runaway success of the drama, Disgraced, by the Pakistani-American writer Ayad Akhtar.

It won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and ran in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and across the US. It was the most-produced play in the 2015-16 season, according to the Theatre Communications Group. It's still going strong and a version is due to open in Princeton, New Jersey, on 11 October.

These are rare achievements for a non-white playwright. The one-act drama, about hot-shot lawyer Amir Kapoor grappling with his Muslim roots, has successfully put America’s typically white, rich, middle-aged theatregoing bums on seats.

'Amir Kapoor's demise is partly about not being at peace with his own origins. To be running away, but not fully transforming into somebody else'

- Marcela Lorca, theatre director

Many are simply turning out for 90 minutes of kinetic drama, which depicts the Manhattan lifestyle of a feisty corporate attorney and his white, trophy wife Emily, an artist, unravel in spectacular fashion.

They are also, implicitly, probing a question that has confounded the US since 9/11 – can Muslims embrace democratic pluralism? Or are they hard-wired for misogyny, anti-Semitism and a proclivity for violence that is inimical to modernity?

“He’s the classic hero, out to conquer the world and in a high position, but throughout the course of a very fast play his life is destroyed like a classic tragic character,” Marcela Lorca, who directed a version at the Guthrie Theater, in Minneapolis, told Middle East Eye.

“His demise is partly about not being at peace with his own origins. To be running away, but not fully transforming into somebody else. To be masking his own self in a manner that ultimately traps and destroys him.”

The one-act drama, about hot-shot lawyer Amir Kapoor grappling with his Muslim roots has received critical acclaim but mixed reviews from audiences (Image credits: Courtesy of the Guthrie Theater)

Booze-fuelled brawl: Race, religion, politics

In the show, Amir has ditched his Muslim heritage to forge a career in a Jewish-dominated field. At his nephew’s request, he appears in court, unofficially, to support a local imam who is jailed on charges of terrorism-financing that are likely bogus.

But his presence is noted by The New York Times, prompting questions about Amir’s political leanings at the office. This plays out over the course of a dinner party with guests Isaac, a Jewish art curator, and Jory, his African-American wife.

The party degrades into a booze-fuelled brawl about race, religion and politics in modern-day America, often focused on Amir, who blasts his Islamic background as “backward” and the Quran as a “long hate-mail letter to humanity”.

But he also cops to an iota of pride when the Twin Towers collapsed and “we were finally winning,” he says. Heated words turn to violence and Amir assaults Emily, which leads to their break-up and Amir’s tragic fall from grace.

The drama in Disgraced unfolds during a social gathering, tackling race, religion and politics (Image credits: Courtesy of the Guthrie Theater)

Critics loved it. Bloomberg described a “combustible powder keg of identity politics”. Variety lauded a “blistering social drama about racial prejudices”. The Seattle Times promised a “theatrical bombshell that doesn’t let anybody off the hook”.

The play has been timely. Though it harkens back to the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, it has run contemporaneously with the rise of Islamic State and terror strikes in Paris, Orlando and San Bernardino, California.

As Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for bans on Muslim immigration to the US, far-right nationalists made gains across Europe and refugees flowed from Syria, Somalia and other mostly-Muslim states.

Trump’s claim in November 2015 that New Jersey Muslims were “going wild” to cheer 9/11 is reminiscent of Amir’s guilty pleasure at watching the towers fall.

Bhavesh Patel, 36, who played Amir in the Guthrie production, enthuses about the show, not least because it creates jobs for South Asian actors, who “don’t typically get roles with that level of complexity, unless you’re playing a terrorist”, he told MEE.

Playwright accused of selling out

But not all the commentary has been gushing. 

The playwright Akhtar, who also wrote the novel American Dervish, speaks of angry reactions from Muslims. One group of Pakistani-American mothers even told him that they had gone to see his play with their express purpose being "we need to understand what it is we need to do so that our children don’t turn out like you," he told Newsweek.

The playwright Ayad Akhtar, who also wrote the novel American Dervish, speaks of angry reactions from Muslims

But criticism of the play, and Akhtar, may be more than just Muslim Americans sensing betrayal. Ashraf Hasham, who works in Seattle’s theatre scene, praises his willingness to tackle taboos, but blasts him for “selling out” and “pandering” to white crowds and award committees.

After presenting Amir’s desire to conceal his heritage from his colleagues, the playwright then demolishes his protagonist by showing him spit on his Jewish guest, assault his wife and lionise the 9/11 hijackers, said Hasham.

“Why go [to] all three places?” Hasham told MEE. “The implication is that all Muslims who grow up in America are animals who still beat their wives and think Jews are worth spitting on, or things like that – a message that not only I but all the other theatregoers took away.”

Playwright Ayad Akhtar says Disgrace is about being filled with love for the past "but feeling separate from it” (Image credits: Courtesy of the Guthrie Theater)

Hasham recalls a playgoer he overheard after watching the Seattle version, suggesting that the show cements, rather than challenges, stereotypes. “Those people are just raised that way, and they can’t help it,” the punter reportedly said.

Patel, the actor, has his own issues with Anglo-American dramatics. The mostly-white drama-lovers may well be thinking: “Look at me I’m literal, intelligent, I’m watching a play with a brown man in the centre and I’m cool with it,” he told MEE.

“I’m not white or middle-aged, but I’m sure that’s something that feels sexy, attractive, satisfying. You get to tick that box.”

But he also says the show is a complex portrait of a single character, not a broad-brush assault on some 3.3 million Muslim Americans – a disparate community which includes black Nation of Islam followers and Middle-East immigrants among others.

Lesson: Never under-estimate audiences

Patel took part in post-show talks between the cast, crowd and representatives from a local Muslim organisation – a format that was mirrored in other productions across the US, allowing audience members to respond to the thought-provoking drama.

Lorca said they went well. “I must confess I had some trepidation what these opinions would be, but I learned that we can never underestimate the audience. They really captured the complexities and understood what Amir was going through,” he told MEE.

'It’s about the experience of losing your religion, losing your community, but still feeling connected to that past and those people'

- Ayad Akhtar, playwright

“They had tremendous empathy for his character, but also people voiced contemporary points of view on politics, race, identity, immigration, alcoholism, domestic abuse – all these subjects were touched on with intelligence and generosity.”

Like all good drama, Disgraced opens the door to many interpretations. Whether Amir is reduced to the basest stereotypes of his background, or instead embodies the struggle of immigrants of all stripes to US soil, remains a divisive issue.

That is the dividing line between fans, like Lorca, and critics, like Hasham. Though Akhtar has welcomed myriad responses to his protagonist’s implosion, he also offers his own answer to that conundrum.

“It’s about the experience of losing your religion, losing your community, but still feeling connected to that past and those people. Still being filled with love for it but feeling separate from it,” Akhtar told Newsweek. “That’s the story I was trying to tell.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.