‘Disgraced’ playwright finds freedom in accepting his Muslim identity


Theater preview

"Disgraced." 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sundays. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Jan. 27-Feb. 14. $20-$68. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000. www.alliancetheatre.org/disgraced

To say that Ayad Akhtar has struggled as a writer is as obvious as saying his material is controversial or that he is a Green Bay Packers fan.

The son of Pakistani immigrants who lived in suburban Milwaukee, Akhtar, now 45, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his first play, “Disgraced,” the tale of an ambitious young New York attorney who attempts to mask his Muslim faith and his ethnic identity, to tragic consequences. In 2012, he published “American Dervish” (Little Brown, $15), a highly regarded, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in Milwaukee.

But before these triumphs, Akhtar, who studied theater at Brown University and film at Columbia University, was plagued by a string of literary defeats that he describes with a mixture of frustration and hilarity.

There was the short story that a professor encouraged him to send to The New Yorker but which he never submitted because he feared he wouldn’t be able to replicate it. He thought he was too young to have anything more to say, and he didn’t write again for seven years.

There were the 12 to 15 full-length screenplays he penned during film school, only one of which, "The War Within" (2005), was ever produced. (He also starred in the movie, playing a Pakistani student who plans a terrorist attack.)

And then there was the novel he toiled over for seven years, thinking it was “a great American masterpiece.”

“It was god awful,” he says, sounding a bit like Woody Allen, one of his influences. “It was my attempt at a European modernist, 600-page, you know, sort of sprawling anti-narrative masterpiece … I showed it to my best friend, and he didn’t want to call me back because he didn’t want to tell me how bad it was. And I had spent seven years on this damn thing.”

Around that time — he was then 32 — he started to rethink his career. And he had an epiphany that would become a defining theme of the work that followed, including "Disgraced," opening Feb. 3 at the Alliance and now the most produced play in American regional theater.

“I started to ask: ‘Who I am trying to not be? Who is that person I am trying to not be?’ And I realized, ‘Oh, it has something to do with me running away from my family. It has something to do with me running away from the fact that my folks are from Pakistan. Trying to become some European thing or some American thing or some other thing that I’m not.’ “

At that point, Akhtar decided to investigate what he had been avoiding.

“I just kind of metaphorically looked over my shoulder,” he says, cocking his head to one side to make his point. “And there was this explosion of inspiration that came out of me. It was almost like fully formed, like characters and narratives and textures. … And so all of this work is a result of that moment: ‘American Dervish,’ ‘Disgraced,’ ‘The Invisible Hand,’ ‘The Who & the What,’ and three more works that I am working on now.”

To explain:

His play “The Invisible Hand” premiered in New York in 2014 and opens in London this spring. “The Who & The What” is a play from 2013 that he decided to set in Atlanta after spending time at the AJC Decatur Book Festival. Seeing two young Muslim women in hijabs and drinking Starbucks in Decatur somehow reminded him of his suburban childhood.

Currently, he is working on two novels and a new film project.

Since its arrival in 2012, “Disgraced” — which chronicles the unraveling of Amir Kapoor, an attorney who tries to hide his Islamic roots from his Jewish-owned law firm — has roiled audiences.

In the pivotal scene, Amir and his wife, a visual artist, invite one of his colleagues and her husband to dinner. Amir’s African-American co-worker is married to a Jewish art dealer who is interested in showing his wife’s work. During the course of the evening, tensions escalate and the night ends violently.

“I finished the play, and I looked at my wife, and I said, ‘You have to read this,’ ” says Dov Wilker, regional director of the American Jewish Committee’s Atlanta office, which co-hosted a Jan. 12 Q&A with Akhtar led by Alliance artistic director Susan V. Booth.Nearly 500 people showed up for the event.

Though Wilker admits to struggling with the some of the disturbing behavior in the play, he says his organization wanted to support the production because of the social issues it raises.

“One of the things that American Jewish Committee works with a lot is understanding identity,” Wilker says. “This to me was an opportunity to discuss identity from multiple view points. There was the Jewish identity piece to it. There was a Muslim identity piece. There was an African-American identity piece. For us as an organization, we seek to create opportunities for people to be in dialogue, and this play in our opinion provides this opportunity.”

“After the show, everybody wants to talk, and everyone wants to give their opinion,” says Amanda Watkins, a Gainesville native who helped shepherd “Disgraced” to Broadway through her work with the New York production company The Araca Group.

“I think it’s the kind of theater that people go to see and then assess their own behavior,” Wakins says. “I think this speaks to the fact that our own prejudices and our quickness to assign people to categories very well might be a part of the problem.”

As a kid growing up in the Midwest, Akhtar says he didn’t experience a lot of prejudice.

“I just feel like people in Wisconsin back then had no idea where the heck I was from anyway. You could have told them and they would have said: ‘Well, is that near Jamaica?’ Or: ‘Is that somehow near Japan? We don’t know. As long as you like the Green Bay Packers, that’s fine.’ ” (He does.)

No one could be more mystified by the extreme responses evoked by “Disgraced” than its author, who has been commissioned to write a screenplay for an HBO adaptation but is not sure when he’ll get around to it.

“There are many different possible ways to read the play, and many of those readings contradict other readings,” he says. “You could see the play as a critique of upper liberal classes. You could see the play as the depiction of dueling identities and loyalties. You could see the play as an airing of legitimate post-colonial grievances of history. You could see the play as confirmation of your belief that Muslims are uncivilized. If you are a devout Muslim, you could see the play as verification that if you drink alcohol, eat pork and marry a white woman, you are going to end up in the gutter.”

But he doesn’t think art should advocate a particular point of view.

“It’s about offering a rich, fertile, open space. … And that’s what ‘Disgraced’ is trying to do. But because it’s doing it with such volatile material, the polarization and the splitting that happens, people think that I must have a political agenda, whether it’s pro-Jihad or whether it’s anti-Muslim. Muslims think it’s anti-Muslim. And non-Muslims think the play is pro-Jihad. It makes no sense.”

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