Regional Reviews: Chicago
The script itself may or may not prove to be a play for the ages, but it could hardly be a better play for our times. Mr. Akhtar, of Pakistani descent but born in Staten Island and raised in Milwaukee, has written a provocative play that deals with the cultural differences and respective prejudices of recent immigrants from Middle East Asia and Americans whose families have been here for generations. What's most provocative is that Akhtar views critically some who share his ethnicity.
His story concerns high-powered attorney Amir (Bernard White), who has succeeded in part by submerging and even hiding his true ethnicity by changing his name and allowing his associates to believe he's south-Asian Indian (and presumably Hindu) rather than a Muslim Pakistani. He's married to Emily (Nisi Sturgis), a WASP-ish American caucasian and counts among his friends Jory (Zakiya Young), an African-American woman who is an associate at his firm, and Jory's husband Isaac, a Jewish art dealer. When Amir's nephew Abe (Behzad Dabu), who retains pride in his ethnicity, persuades Amir to provide support to an imam who has been wrongly imprisoned on charges of supporting terrorism, Amir's brief episode of activism starts a chain of events that begin to unravel Amir's relationships with wife, friends, and employers.
Much of the chaos unspools in a dinner party hosted by Amir and Emily for Isaac and Jory. While I for one have grown weary of the dramatic device of watching polite living room gatherings deteriorate in real time on stage (i.e. God of Carnage and The Qualms), this one works, as the circumstances sparking the conflict are set up properly in this one-act play's first two (of four ) scenes. Akhtar makes the point, that regardless of Amir's desire to assimilate into American life, the cultural underpinnings of his ethnicitycertain concepts of right and wrong, honor and masculinityremain within him. Also, through the actions of the "American" characters, meaning those whose families came to the U.S. earlier than Amir's, Akhtar shows how the prejudices of latter-generation Americans toward Muslims are not so easily submerged, either. Particularly, perhaps, in New York City where the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks still sting.
Disgraced opened at the Goodman just days before the 14-year-old Muslim Ahmed Mohamed of Irving, Texas, was detained for bringing to his junior high school a homemade clock that teachers feared was a bomb. Thus, audiences of Disgraced did not have to look far to imagine how barely submerged prejudices can flare up in an instant when one feels threatened, as teachers at Ahmed's junior high apparently did.
Disgraced, we're told, will be the most-produced play nationally of the current 2015-16 season, and more than 30 productions are planned worldwide over the next two years. These won't all have the benefit of this very fine cast and direction by Chicago-based Kimberly Senior (who directed the American Theater Company and Broadway productions as well), but likely their audiences will find this play a provocative thought-starter on one of the cultural divides that is most challenging to our ability to live together in this shrinking world.
Disgraced will play the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Randolph, Chicago through October 25, 2015. For more information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org.