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On Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced

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When I read the play in the American Theatre Magazine, it moved me and frightened me and made me uncomfortable, the way I like theatre to make me feel uncomfortable. Last December, I saw the play at Berkeley Rep. It brought up a lot of thoughts and emotions. I felt exhilarated, having witnessed the courage of a playwright to expose his insides in a most vulnerable manner. I applaud him. But I also understand the concerns expressed about this play and its wide exposure. I sit down to examine my own experience of the play.

During the performance I felt a wide range of emotions, disgust, fear, rage, and I realize, no love. By the end of the play, we hate everyone in Disgraced. We hate the Muslim man who confirms our assumption that all Muslim men are violent, particularly toward women. We hate the white, presumably Christian wife who exotifies her brown husband. We hate the seemingly progressive Jewish man who betrays his wife and his friend. And we hate the black woman who takes opportunity away from another brown person without batting an eye. As beautiful as the outsides of these characters maybe, as successful and together as they may seem, by the end of the play we have seen enough of their disgusting insides to want no more.

At the center of the play is Amir, a successful lawyer with an eye on a partnership in his firm. He is tall, dark and handsome. And Muslim. His white wife adores this about him. Emily is a painter enamored with Islamic visual art; it has freed her artistically. Yet when the play opens, she is not busy with one of her geometric abstract pieces influenced by the intricacies of Islamic tile designs but a portrait of her husband, an adaptation if you will of Velasquez’ portrait of Juan de Pareja, his slave of Moorish decent. In the opening scene, we meet Amir trouser-less but holding his head high, a proud brown man in a crisp expensive white shirt and red silk tie. Much like de Pareija, Amir wears the clothes of his masters proudly. He is aware of the ironies of the moment; his wife is painting a portrait of her brown slave- but the adoring wife playfully dismisses his “accusations.” The charged sexual moment that follows is hand-picked out of Othello. Their racial difference seems to fuel their love-making. He is powerful and virile. She is fragile and hungry for his passion. For a moment, we wonder, who is whose slave? Before we can fully determine this, duty calls –the office on Amir’s cell phone – and love is left unrequited.

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