Disgraced by ‘Disgraced’
I am writing this review because I believe people need to hear it. It’s personal, and it’s about something I think about a lot. I’m a theater director and an actor; I do theater to create understanding between people. My opinions here are meant to enrich our theater culture.
Let’s face it: Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced is not the greatest piece of theater. Any thespian or theatergoer will tell you that. It’s sensationalist fiction. There have been a lot of better scripts written for stage, and there will be many more to come. Yet, Disgraced has won a Pulitzer Prize and will be staged again and again.
If you haven’t seen Disgraced, here is a quick overview: In the first hour, there are deep and interesting back-and-forth dialogues; it’s graceful and praiseworthy. Yes, all that nice stuff I so eloquently mentioned in great detail. Then, there is the last 20 minutes or so of the play that’s full of shock factor.
The main character, Amir, is an American of Pakistani descent and Muslim upbringing. He’s a stern apostate and, irrelevant to any of these details, pretty much a straight-up a**hole to others. Regardless of what Amir does, believes, and says throughout the play, no one in the play seems to successfully separate him from his upbringing that he hates so much, and his brown skin color that amplifies his inferiority complex. There is more. He goes full on radical in the last 20 minutes of the play; acts out his anti-Semitic fantasy to the limit of his ability at the time; shouts the N-word at an African American woman on stage; sympathizes with the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the WTC; and can’t help but brutally beat the s**t out of his beautiful, kind, white, talented, trophy-wife.
At this point of the play, who cares about statistics of abuse among interracial couples, or even the probability of character choices? It’s the shock factor that’s important on stage. But, what implications does this have?
Disgraced plays out the audience’s worst nightmare! I don’t care who wrote it. It plays out America’s deepest and darkest fears of Muslims and Middle Easterners to the fullest, and leaves you with that. The play ends with that, without any hints or questions left.
A lot of reviews online are raving about this play. But, I read the names of those reviewers; they are not the ones being represented by this play. It’s not their color or ethnicity or religion that’s being represented on stage. The discourse of these reviews is dominated by people whose lives are foreign to the topics this play fills the audience’s mind with. So, who has the voice and who is deciding what to represent?
There is, at the very least, cause for concern when an audience member says “I knew it! Those people are just raised that way, and they can’t help it.” This quote is a mild version. There are things I choose not to include here. For some people, these reactions cause more than just a concern; they cause fear.
The dangerous problem with this play is what it implicates about a minority group in this country that is already vulnerable and fragile: Muslims. You can argue to what degree it implicates these issues. But, we don’t need to twist the meaning here. Even our modern-age prophet, the trustworthy Google, cites many reactions similar to mine (Google it).
Before watching Disgraced, I read the first hour of the play. A good friend lent me a copy of the script, but it was missing the last half hour of the play. I was a little skeptical before watching the production, because no American-Muslim or any friend of Middle-Eastern background praised this play to me or online. When you experience racism, prejudice, or are subjected to being singled out, you become aware of these things. I cannot afford to be blind to racism and prejudice; it’s part of reality for me. Not only do they exist in my life, but unfortunately the news confirms that they are on the rise. Unfortunately, some people do firmly believe that people who appear Muslim are anti-Semitic, closet terrorists, and are prone to beat women. I’m too familiar with that mentality, what it does, and how it feels to be at the receiving end of it again, and again, and again.
Some might think “So, big deal, who cares what Muslim Americans think?” But, what if you were going to watch a play about African Americans and no African Americans said positive things about it; or a play about Latinos, or Chinese Americans, or any other minority. Or, if you want to mention religion, a play about Christians, or Jews, or who and whatever you can think of. When a part of the demographic build-up of your nation is the prominent topic of the play, their opinion should matter. If it doesn’t, you are not watching good theater!
I’m a human, who happens to be a Muslim and who happens to an American. These general labels don’t define me; don’t get caught up in them. If you disagree with anything I’ve said, I’d love to hear it. But, please don’t lecture me about what it’s like, and what it means, to be an American, or a Muslim, or an American Muslim. I see the same thing happening to other minorities on social media. Minorities don’t need to be told who we are; we know who we are. Believe it or not, reconciling my ethnicity, nationality, religion, and how I live my life is not that hard; it is much easier than paying for adequate healthcare these days. I mind my own business, as everyone else minds their own. I give respect, I receive respect. It’s not a complicated ordeal. Is it really fundamentally different for any other person in this great country?
To portray the Japanese-American life, we don’t portray a Japanese-American character on stage who defends the attacks on Pearl Harbor. If we want to portray the German-American life after WWII, we don’t present a German-American who defends Hitler and the holocaust. How would that sit in your stomach? I want to see a play about Middle Easterners or Muslims, who don’t do anything crazy. Just a play where they are not plotting to kill people, or beating white women, or screaming at the top of their lungs, or going radical. After watching Disgraced, even more than before, I want to watch a play about these people sitting down, drinking tea, and talking about normal stuff. Can you imagine? That would be revolutionary! Why don’t we see things like that in our theaters or media?