Written by Ayad Akhtar
Back Bay Books, 2013
Play, 87 pages
"You sound like a midcentury America minimalist, trying to obliterate the ego." - Isaac
Disgraced, the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer, proved a fast and compelling read. Even before getting into the play itself, I felt a kinship with Akhtar. He included a section in the beginning of the book called "On Reading Plays." It explores the idea that "a play is seldom meant to be read. It is meant to be poured over, interrogated, dissected, obeyed. A play is a blueprint, a workman's plan drawn for a group of collaborating artists, and it must contain the seeds of inspiration, the insinuations of truth that will spur the actors and the director and the designers handily to tell the playwright's chosen tale." It continues for two pages more. I share these sentiments with Akhtar, and I believe the words chosen to express the story are the writer's tools and are of the utmost importance. This passage put me in a great head space to read the play.
In his opening essay, Akhtar references how words are signals and, also, that "the wonder of reading a play has to do with what dialogue offers and what it denies." I decided to look quite closely at the text, reading select passages more than once. The play has five characters but, at its heart, focuses on the relationship between four of them, more specifically, two couples. Amir is an American-born Muslim who has discarded his religion and his heritage. His wife, Emily, a white woman, is an artist who focuses on Islamic themes in her work. Isaac, Jewish, is an art-dealer who Emily hopes will propel her work forward and his wife, Jory, African-American, is a lawyer who works at the same law firm as Amir. The varied backgrounds serve to highlight different points of view and serves as a backdrop for cultural politics.
Disgraced looks at questions of self-identity, religion, and assimilation. One thing I noticed is that the words Quran and Koran are both used in the piece. Quran is used by Amir and his (practicing Muslim) nephew Abe (the fifth character), as well as by Emily. Isaac and Jory always use Koran. To me, this points out relationship and ownership and highlights a difference in the understanding of the characters. If I were directing the piece, I'm not sure how I'd translate this difference to the audience, but Akhtar's blueprint subtly points out that a difference is present and important.
Something I enjoy is how jokes can be used to cover something deeper, to cover discomfort (if you think about it, even sitcoms are filled with dysfunction), and this was utilized throughout the play. I started laughing, and then I found myself suddenly in the throws of a drama. This exchange particularly made me giggle:
Jory: If you're young and not a liberal, you've got no heart. And if you're old and not a conservative...
Amir and Jory: ...you've got no brain.
The joke was recognizable. It allowed for an ease, a familiarity, that aligned me with Amir, the protagonist. There was also a reference to South Park or, more specifically, to a character knowing details about Mormonism because of a South Park episode. These characters are just like me. They could be my friends. That realization made the play's decent into violence all the more disturbing.
Hints of violence to come began verbally, and the way the dialogue appeared on the page was just as important as what was said (or as what was not said). Consider the following, spoken by Emily:
This is my home.
Was a mistake...
The break in the lines, the ellipses, the unnecessary capital "w" in was - all of these point to her discomfort. They let me know that this is difficult for her to utter, and I begin to question whether or not she means it. Of course, Amir and Jory find out about their spouses' infidelity, and, after Jory and Isaac leave, the tension between Amir and Emily escalates until physical violence takes place, culminating in the stage direction, "Uncontrolled violence as brutal as it needs to be in order to convey the discharge of a lifetime of discreetly building resentment." The beating is shocking and horrible, and the words chosen, especially "a lifetime of discreetly building resentment" hit hard. I'm caught up in the moment. That's why, for me, the parenthetical that followed pulled me out of the piece:
(In order for the stage violence to seem as real as possible, obscuring it from direct view of the audience might be necessary. For it to unfold with Emily hidden by a couch, for example.)
I understand the impulse to emphasize not to back away from the violence, that it must look real in order to have its intended impact, but I wonder if phasing it in a way that did not involve direct address or putting the instruction elsewhere could have been more effective. The parenthetical reminded me that this was on a stage, that it was not real, and gave me a moment to breathe - a moment that the audience would not and should not have.
That being said, this was the only misstep for me in a very powerful piece, a piece that explored multiple points of view. Disgraced got under my skin, and I found myself thinking about this story and these characters long after I set the play down.