Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer winning play Disgraced
exposes closet racism
“The mosaics in Andalusia are bending the picture plane four hundred years before Bonnard. That’s what I mean. That’s what I was saying. The Muslims gave us Aristotle. Without them, we probably wouldn’t even have visual perspective.”
Pakistani-American Ayad Akhtar’s play is set in metropolitan, melting pot New York where Emily (Kirsty Bushell) a WASP artist is married to up and coming corporate lawyer Amir Kapoor (Hari Dhillon). At the beginning of the play, we see this middle class couple enjoying a lifestyle of success and potential.
Emily is painting Amir, who is posing in his white boxer shorts because she is only painting him from the waist up, in a painting inspired by Velázquez’s portrait of his Moorish assistant, Juan de Pareja in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Amir’s nephew Abe (Danny Ashok), his name Americanised to disguise his heritage, wants his uncle to speak up in court for an Imam accused of terrorist allegiances.
The first scene shows Emily’s interest in non-figurative Islamic art inspired by the Spanish Moorish designs at palaces, like the Alhambra. In Scene Two we meet Isaac (Nigel Whitmey) a curator at the Whitney in New York and in a position to promote Emily’s career. Scene Three has Isaac and his wife Jory (Sara Powell), a lawyer at the firm where Amir also works and a woman of African American heritage coming to dinner with Amir and Emily.
So Ayab Akhtar has built this portrait of a section of affluent New York society, mixed cultures, mixed religions, mixed ethnicities, unified by their ambition to succeed.
Amir is working for a firm with two Jewish partners and it emerges that he has changed his name from the Islamic Abdullah to the Indian sounding Amir Kapoor for reasons associated with 9/11. Amir recalls an incident when his mother found out that his friend at school was a Jewish girl called Rivkah and made her son aware of her feelings about what the Israelis had done to the Palestinians.
As the play progresses there is an over-consumption of alcohol and the cracks start to open up. Amir will feel betrayed by his wife, by his associate Jory and by their friend Isaac and the effect is violent, shocking and destructive. Seething beneath the surface is closet racism and prejudice released by alcohol. Nadia Fall directs well in the traverse space and the performances are believable. Jaimie Todd’s design uses the Manhattan apartment space with the trappings of design furniture.
There is a feeling that the character of Emily is dabbling in Islamic art, toying with her husband as if he were a slave, like the subject of Velázquez’s painting. “Only for people who are trying to make Islam look all warm and fuzzy, ” says Amir debating whether the Quran says to beat or leave disobedient wives.
We are told that Emily was promoting her art career on a visit to London with Isaac, and yet it is her influence in getting Amir to speak up for the Imam in court, which unravels his prospects with the Jewish led law firm. Amir tells us he has rejected his religion, that he is an apostate but the play shows that his culture runs deep and rage is the product.
There are many strands to Ayad Akhtar’s interesting play as we seek to analyse what went wrong and what the causes are. Abe, with the idealism of youth, describes the rage felt by Muslims, “For three hundred years they’ve been taking our land, drawing new borders, replacing our laws, making us want to be like them. Marry their women. They disgraced us. They disgraced us. And then they pretend they don’t understand the rage we’ve got?”
Written by Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Nadia Fall
Director: Nadia Fall
Designer: Jaimie Todd
Lighting Designer: James Whiteside
Sound Designer: Mike Walker
Fight Director: Kate Waters
Running Time: One hour 30 minutes without an interval
Closed at the Bush on 29th June 2013
The Bush Theatre
Old Shepherd’s Bush Library
7 Uxbridge Road
London W12 8LJ
Website: Bush Theatre
Rail/Tube: Shepherd’s Bush
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Bush Theatre
on 24th May 2013