by Linda Lombardi, Artistic Associate and Literary Manager
The most-produced play in the 2015/2016 North American theater season, Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Disgraced, deftly raises issues of identity, race, the limitations of perception, and the American Dream. A taut, provocative drama, Disgraced mines the complexities of our modern times and relationships, as well as the need for empathy in navigating the intricacies of our interactions. As we enter our final week of performances, I met with the cast to discuss the play, audience reactions, and the current state of public discourse in America. Below is an excerpt of my conversation with Felicia Curry (Jory), Joe Isenberg (Isaac), Nehal Joshi (Amir), Samip Raval (Abe), and Ivy Vahanian (Emily).
What discoveries have you made during the process; either in rehearsals or in performances? Any surprises along the way?
Felicia: I was surprised at how viscerally and vocally people respond to the show. They aren’t afraid to respond – regardless of what the response is — laughter, gasps —
Ivy: — speaking to us.
Why do you think that is?
Felicia: I think it’s the way that Timothy [Douglas] directed it. Because of the way he’s allowed us to do the play, people really feel like they’re there, in that apartment. They don’t feel like they’re watching something, they feel like they’re a part of it. Of course they’re going to respond because they’re in it with us.
Ivy: Because of the structure of the play and its pace, the responses just fly out of them.
Nehal: I’m surprised by how delicate the play is. There are so many issues in it and it brings up so many emotions in people, and they want to share those emotions with you.
Samip: There are a lot of different kinds of people who come to this play and who respond to it with such variety. That’s been incredible.
Joe: It feels like a scalpel of a narrative. It’s very delicate, very sharp, and the way that it affects people is very deep and slicing in a way.
Nehal: In a broader sense, it’s surprising how much the play can hold for everyone, and how sympathetic the audiences are to all of us, even though we say and do horrible things to each other.
Ivy: We’ve very effectively gotten out of our own way. And we’ve loved each other through the really hard stuff. I learn things every single time. It’s exhilarating and it also just exists. It’s just there.
One of the topics brought up in the play is the debate between justice and order, and how each of your characters has a different view of the issue.
Felicia: The interesting thing is that I’d usually be like Emily and say “justice, always.” But the more I do this show and say these lines, I understand why Jory chooses order. I know it’s hard for people to hear, especially coming from a black woman. I think what Jory is saying is that without order we cannot enforce justice. In order to have the justice that we want maybe we need to correct the way things are ordered.
Ivy: When you say that to me onstage, it’s this wonderfully revealing moment of everywhere Jory comes from. That’s the order. The consciousness of honoring that. It becomes very personal —
Felicia: It is personal.
Ivy: — not just intellectual thought.
Nehal: It’s a hard statement for me. There’s a level of old racism versus new racism. My initial reaction when I heard it was that Jory’s pulling away from her own race. This gets into how delicate the play is. Each one of us has our own thoughts about these lines. On one level, there’s the idea that you have to become an individual to become an American. You have to pull yourself away from your identity – your tribe – to become an American, to become part of a bigger tribe.
Samip: Justice as an incentive is holding on to a principle, but how long can you hold on to that?
Felicia: And is justice afforded to everybody?
Ivy: No it’s not.
Nehal: I don’t think that’s what people are thinking though.
Ivy: I don’t think people think that either.
Nehal: It actually surprises me that people don’t think that.
Joe: I think people have a philosophical response to questions on the one hand. But if I’m talking to my wife, or a close friend, in a private context, I may reveal a potentially contradictory point of view as I search out how to articulate that kind of response and how it's constantly evolving. I do believe that people put on masks for the philosophies they put together, but in a private context they can be more vulnerable and, through that, they can be potentially more inflammatory.
Felicia: When you come to this show, for 90 minutes you listen to what Amir has to say. Actually listen, not pretend to listen. How you perceive it and take it away may be different, but that kind of listening is not happening consistently around the country and around the world right now. And I think that’s the big difference. People are actively listening.
Ivy: I think that Trump – ok I’m just going to go there – he has decided to deal on an emotional, inflammatory level, because that will incite people. A lot of people are hungry for that. They want to live on a more visceral level.
Felicia: Abe says it at the end. ‘It’s not fair to us. They took our stuff and they brought us here and said do this, and they don’t understand that we’re upset?’ Take a second to actually listen and reflect on that. That’s what the show does. Hopefully, at least for a minute, people hear it.
Ivy: Something like 60% of this nation have never met a Muslim person.
Samip: Well that’s an order versus justice moment right there. Just that – that interaction.
Nehal: The great writer, Kevin Smith, wrote in Mallrats, “Understanding is reached only after confrontation.” It’s actually very apropos for our play and the national dialogue. There’s a lot of fear and rhetoric towards Islam. Political candidates are using it to gain support because fear is an easy way to get somebody to listen to you. It happens on the news every night. People are using fear rhetoric to try to assuage their feelings about Islam. People have a lot of fear because, especially since 9/11, Islam is, on some level, a faceless religion. And the faces that you are given, often by the news, are war-like faces, or faces of aggression, which is troubling for the religion. That fear and rhetoric that is used towards Islam is very reminiscent of rhetoric that has been used towards other religions at other points in world history. So it’s important to have a play like this where people can walk into the theater and see a person who they may have seen demonized, and hopefully be able to rationalize the arguments. I think that’s an important interaction to have. Understanding comes through confrontation. Thanks, Kevin Smith.
What keeps bringing you back to theater?
Nehal: We live in a world that is becoming increasingly isolated. Because of that, we all hunger for connection with each other. There’s electricity that happens in a theater that no other art form can achieve. Film can blow things up; we can’t blow things up. Television can let you follow the storyline of one person for a year; we can’t do that. But what we can do is be there, living in front of you, every moment. There’s a connection that happens between everyone in the audience and an actor that is palpable, visceral and important. Because we can tell stories. That’s how our histories are passed along. Our stories are the things that last.
Joe: Life is hard and serious, and all the subjects that we’re talking about onstage are difficulties in our world. It’s a wonderful thing to be in an environment where you can have those conversations and live those lives and yet, as you’re doing that, it’s all play. The theater is a beautiful escape where you can examine life in a totally joyful way. And by joyful I mean free, and by free I mean vulnerable.
Felicia: It allows people to come in and see and hear people, comments, questions, that they may not see and hear in their everyday lives. It gives them an opportunity to be exposed to it and acknowledge it, and then go home and think about it. There are a lot of things that I still have a hard time dealing with and processing, and theater allows me to be these people who process differently than I do. Through performing these parts in these shows, I see how somebody else would deal with and react to a situation, and use that in my everyday life.
Ivy: The theater is a space where you’re allowed to be everything you are; all your messy parts, all your lovely parts. You’re asked to open yourself up and discover new things without judgement. The more I do it, the clearer I become. That is the joy of theater; to be willing to examine our truth while sharing the same breath as the audience. It’s a safe place for everybody involved. It’s magical. It’s like my church. And that I get to do that? It’s a gift.
Samip: There are very few places where people come to tell the truth. The theater will call you out if you’re lying. You can’t hide.
Nehal: And the irony is that none of it is real.
Samip: Yeah it’s not real, but for a lot of people, it’s the only place where they can be real. Let’s take 90 minutes and just tell the truth.
(Photos: Joe Isenberg as Isaac, Nehal Joshi as Amir, Ivy Vahanian as Emily and Felicia Curry as Jory in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Samip Raval as Abe and Nehal Joshi as Amir in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photos by C. Stanley Photography.)