by Linda Lombardi, Artistic Associate and Literary Manager
It is a pleasure to welcome director Timothy Douglas (King Hedley II) back to Arena Stage to helm Disgraced. A warm, thoughtful, generous artist, Timothy directs with a light and fluid touch; allowing the play to unfold naturally and gracefully. During rehearsals, I sat down with Timothy to discuss Disgraced, America’s complicated relationship with race, and his love of theater.
What attracts you to Disgraced?
My own personal curiosity and conundrum of where to put the very prominent conversation about Islamophobia, Muslims in America, demonizing Muslims by way of serving political agendas in this election season, and in America at large. How do we deal with “Other”? In Disgraced, specifically dealing with Islam and Muslim culture. Of the productions of the play that I’ve seen, I’ve walked away feeling there was another layer inherent to the play yet to be ‘teased’ out, and I wondered if it were even possible to access without altering the playwright’s original intent. To be presented with that challenge was very appealing for me. The ancillary bonus was being asked back to direct at Arena, where I’m always made to feel my work is respected.
Can you articulate what it is that you wanted to tease out?
Being a man of color in America, as well as this profession, I’m not always fully ‘seen’ when I walk in a room. It doesn’t occur to people at large that I’m the director of a play at Arena Stage, particularly if it’s not a play about the Black-American experience. When some discover that I’m directing Disgraced here, I witness the adjustment of people who’ve already met me, and have decided who and what I am or, more specifically, I’d already been dismissed in their eyes, and once they’ve adjusted to the idea, there is ultimately a positive response. But, too late — as I’ve clocked the original one already. I rarely get to have a pure experience being acknowledged as a director first … it’s more often ‘African-American director’. I imagine Muslims in America experience a parallel frustration with Muslim-Americans … it seems our identity will always be hyphenated out of the gate.
On my own gentrified block in Brooklyn, for most of my life it was an entirely Afro-Caribbean neighborhood — and now it’s just me and my cousin. It was the one place in my world I could fully exhale and where I didn’t have to worry about encountering a white woman coming down the street who clutched her purse when she saw me coming, forcing me into the decision as to whether or not I should cross the street. And, if I choose not to cross the street, then unintentionally the palpable energy of my frustration comes off as the very act of perceived aggression that would cause a nervous white woman to clutch her purse. And it continues to inspire anger in me, and I remain frustrated that I have to feel that way — and, if she then happens to catch the look on my face, she actually sees the very thing that she’s terrified of … it’s a vicious little circle.
It’s a similar experiential vein I felt was missing from other productions I saw … It felt to me that the Amir’s were somewhat void of embodying the effects of such experiences which lead up to the climax of the play. But that’s not unique to Islamic culture and how Muslims are perceived. That’s every man of color’s role inside of a play that’s not culturally specific. It’s a mostly white male-driven world that Disgraced exists in. It is about a man operating outside his culture, and surrounded by people outside his culture. It’s essential to me that the production be balanced in such a way that Amir (and all the characters, for that matter) remains an individual at core and is not inherently perceived ‘a monster’.
You’ve worked with set designer Tony Cisek on over 30 productions. How would you describe your working relationship with him?
I think he’s brilliant. He reads plays like a dramaturg before he starts designing. He thinks of every aspect of the story — not just the physical environment, but how that environment is going to affect each and every character. And then from a perspective of movement. We’ve done enough projects together that he knows how I like to move actors across the stage. The thing I most appreciate is how he solves the theater space problems first. Every theater has its own particular challenges in terms of its relationship of the audience to stage; the stage space itself and how it the addition of objects affects the overall space. Tony solves the challenge of the particular theater space first, and then designs to its strengths. Other designers with whom I’ve worked design the world first, after which the problems of the space reveal themselves, and then we often spend the rest of the time problem solving. It’s inevitable that directors will do a certain amount of restaging when WE move from the rehearsal room to the theater space. With Tony’s designs I do only a minimal amount of changing. It’s how I know he’s solved the space - there are very few surprises for me.
One of things I’ve come to love about the play is the essential quality of every character. Abe has to ask Amir to help the Imam. Isaac and Jory have to come to dinner on that particular evening. If even one of them wasn’t there, the essence of the piece would be completely different. Which is also true of your cast. In order for all of these relationships to form, you had to cast these particular people.
I cast individuals. I always read with the actors at auditions. Not every actor can stand up to the rigor of reading with the director. I look for people with a certain amount of innate fortitude, and who can affect me with their arguments. I don’t need the perfect audition, nor do I require ‘the performance’. But are you going to work with me? Am I going to be influenced by your point of view? That’s what I’m looking for.
Why do you think Disgraced causes such varied and passionate reactions in audiences?
I don’t presume to know the ultimate truth of that, but I am aware that my country has not acknowledged, or doesn’t demonstrate an authentic understanding of its direct participation in the creation of Islamophobia. I was in New York on 9/11. The first 36 hours — and as bizarre as this is to say — was the most cathartic and clarifying time for what it meant to be an American. I remember thinking ‘What a horrible thing to have happened, to be sure — but now America can no longer deny the impact it’s having on the rest of the world toward the incitement of this kind of retaliation.’ I could viscerally feel that this was the prevailing sentiment around me. We as a nation could have shifted the paradigm right there. We had the support of the entire world, including parts of the Middle East. And it broke my heart to realize just how deep our collective depth of denial must be in order to live with being able to justify things like perpetrating the war in Iraq. A play like Disgraced bumps up against the stories that we have told, or are telling, ourselves, to sustain the myth of the ‘Other’ as enemy, void of the acknowledging of our participation in creating it. I think one reason people get so worked up when viewing this play is because of how it reveals its humanity through the way these individual characters respond to extreme scenarios, thus compelling us to see ourselves as being capable of justifying brutal thoughts and acts when feeling threatened.
What you said about your feelings during the first 36 hours — do you think that’s similar to what Amir says in the play about feeling proud? Or is he feeling something completely different?
I understand the moment, and Nehal Joshi, the actor playing Amir, clearly does as well, but we haven’t dissected it too much, as such a sentiment reveals itself at the depth of personal reckoning. To pull it apart would muddy the fact that it’s coming from the place within where it actually lives. For me, in the context of what I just said in terms of America’s shared responsibility about the atrocities going on in the Middle East — while not at all justifying the act of flying airplanes into buildings killing thousands, I am able to contemplate a depth of such despair and anger at aggressors that could inspire such an extreme act. Said act, for a number of Muslims, and others, was a communication to the world that ‘succeeded’ in being ‘heard’ at the depth of just how desperate things were. As Amir affirms, it’s not the actual atrocity that he’s condoning, but ‘the pride’ in the success of (finally) getting the message across. I’m not speaking for Nehal or Ayad, but that’s the best way that I can describe where the sentiment lives for me. It’s how I felt that day. They succeeded in getting our attention ... horrible, yes — but successful.
For Amir specifically, there’s such an identity struggle within the play. What connection do you see between the current climate and the situation in Disgraced?
America is no longer majority white, and will never be again. That has awakened the sleeping beast of white American dominance and an arrogance that believed it was always going to be on top, and in power, and in control. It is simply no longer a possibility. The inevitable transfer of cultural power is in play and the insanity of what we’re witnessing is the death grip with events like the current presidential campaign … I need only listen to the rhetoric of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump to understand that theirs is the response to the thread of their culture being wiped out. Identity politics isn’t new for people of color, but now that white people are compelled to address the matter, it’s become a renewed issue for us all by default, but the current knee-jerk reaction is akin to trying to get a genie back into the bottle. There’s no turning back now, however, and yet there are enough ‘angry’ people who want to ‘take their country back’. But white America doesn’t have the coping tools that black America has had for generations for dealing with a dominant culture. The world is primarily one ‘of-color’. It always has been, and white America, finally, can no longer deny it. Leaning back to the question about the reaction of this play … I do understand what you mean about the politicizing of race identity, cultural identity. But with our approach to Disgraced we’re not politicizing it, as that would be like us trying to make water wet.
As someone who directs all over the country, what creature comforts do you bring with you when you go out of town?
I bring my own sheets and my own pillow. I used to travel with my DVD collection but everything’s streaming now. And a scented candle — the current one being Moss & Sage.
What keeps bringing you back to theater?
It’s the one thing I have in my life that most successfully helps me in navigating life itself. As my full time job I get to spend my days fostering dynamic relationships and solving problems. My time in the theater has cultivated great tools for use in my own life. And, by extension, if the work I facilitate is effective, certain audience members might also gain a new way to deal with something plaguing their lives that may never have occurred to them before.
That, or maybe I can’t face reality — which is okay too. As long as theaters keep hiring me I’ll continue to work in faith that I’m doing an effective job for them … and in turn the bonus for me remains that I don’t have to face reality.
(Photo: 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, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.)