by Linda Lombardi, Artistic Associate and Literary Manager
The most-produced play of the 2015/2016 theater season, Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Disgraced, is inspiring a national dialogue about everything from cultural appropriation to identity politics to what it means to be an American. I met with Ayad recently to discuss his body of work, the themes in Disgraced, and his love of theater. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
How did you come to theater? How did you start playwriting?
My parents came over from Pakistan in 1968 and 1969. They were the first to leave Pakistan and come to America. My dad was the only son on his side of the family and my mom was the eldest. I was the first-born son. They were both doctors so, of course, I was going to be a doctor, right? My mom trained me — when the teacher asks what you want to do when you grow up, to say I want to be a neurologist. My kindergarten teachers were very impressed. I didn’t quite know what a neurologist was.
When I was fifteen I had a literature teacher who changed my life. She made me want to become a writer. It was certainly a great — perhaps the great —encounter in my life. Everything I do is an homage to her. I had her for class two hours a day, both semesters, junior and senior year. She introduced me to the theater via text. I was reading everything under the sun. She was really obsessed with European continental modernism, so I was reading a lot of very obscure modernist writers. I went to college to become a writer and my second year there a friend was directing David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago and he thought I’d be good in it. I don’t know why he thought I’d be good in that play. But I loved acting, and I started to do more and more theater. When I graduated from Brown, I worked with Jerzy Grotowski for a year in Italy, and ended up as his assistant. I spent a lot of time with him towards the end of his life. Then I came to New York and worked with Andre Gregory and taught acting with him for many years. I had this weird, avant-garde training that was all about process. And now I write these overtly audience oriented, well-made, traditional plays. It’s really weird how life is.
It’s been a long journey. I’ve been writing now for 30 years. I break my career up into four stages thus far. Stage One: I started writing really poorly, thinking I was writing really well. Stage Two: I’m still writing really poorly but I’m starting to realize it and trying to get better. Stage Three: I’m writing better but nobody’s paying any attention. Stage Four: I’m writing better and people are paying more attention. That’s the stage I’m in now. Hopefully it will not be followed by a Stage Five where I think I’m writing very well and I’m actually writing very poorly again!
There is an evolution that leads to the acquisition of craft and to the opening of oneself to the world. I think the big crossing for me was understanding, as a young man, I thought of art as self-expression. It was a tool for me to demonstrate my unique greatness, my remarkable singularity, my deservedness amongst the stars, you know? As I got older — and as life started to beat me up a bit — I began to understand that it wasn’t interesting for the art to be about me. It suddenly became much more interesting to be observing others and to see what’s happening in the world; for art to be this creative engagement. In many ways, I actually don’t think I came to be an artist until I understood that.
What was the impetus behind Disgraced?
I started to understand I was running from who I was. I had been inculcated in the literary values of European modernism. I was trying to be a kind of writer that I wasn’t. I was trying to ignore the fact that my parents came from Pakistan and that I had a Muslim background. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I wanted to be the “great American guy,” a tabula rasa, not defined by anything. I was partaking of that great American paradigm of rupture from the old world and renewal of the self from the new world. Whether it’s a rupture from the literal old world, or a rupture from one coast and moving to the other coast, or from one primary family to a surrogate family, or one identity to another, we as Americans celebrate that rupture. We celebrate the renewal, but we do not mourn the rupture. I started to recognize that I had been running from all kinds of stuff in many ways. My identity ethnically and religiously was part of that. It was a slow process of coming to understand how much I wanted to be European, how much I wanted to be white, how much I wanted to be things that I wasn’t. When I started to understand that, I had enough presence of mind to not do anything about it, but just observe. And as I observed, I metaphorically looked over my shoulder at what I had been running from, and it led to an explosion of creativity. I had been writing stories for a long time, so I think this inspiration manifested itself with craft built in — narratives, characters, textures, dramatic situations and circumstances. I wrote the first draft of American Dervish, the first draft of Disgraced, a second draft of American Dervish, The Invisible Hand, The Who & The What, started working on a novel that I’m still working on, and I had two more ideas after that that I still haven’t gotten to.
All together these stories are a picture; but no one of them is the picture. I would finish one, and I would go into the other. One work is a contradiction of the next, and is a response to the next, or takes the themes of the previous and develops them in a different way. Abe in Disgraced walks off stage in scene four and shows up as Bashir in The Invisible Hand — a different character but with the same genealogy. When I started Disgraced, I had just finished American Dervish, which is set 20 years before 9/11. American Dervish was not so much a concept, as a felt response. I wrote about my childhood 20 years before 9/11, now I’m going to write about what I’m seeing around me today. What’s the difference? How have things changed?
A good idea for a story is the confluence of two, three, or maybe even four ideas coming together in one idea. One of the streams that was feeding the inspiration for Disgraced was a dinner party at my house in 2006 where the conversation turned to Islam. There was this subtle way in which the conversation shifted people’s relationship with each other in some permanent way. I clocked that that night and thought it was fascinating and would be an interesting dramatic circumstance. Fast forward three years and I’m finally writing a draft of what would eventually become Disgraced.
I know you get asked this a lot so, to get the elephant out of the room, what does Disgraced mean for you?
I believe there’s rarely been a play that’s clearer about the meaning of its title to an audience than Disgraced. Abe’s monologue uses the word twice – with emphasis.
“For three hundred years they’ve been coming to our part of the world, taking our land, drawing new borders, making us want to look like them, be like them, marry their women. They disgraced us, they disgraced us. And then, they pretend they don’t understand the rage we’ve got.”
I think it’s interesting that the question comes up so much. I think it means people are not listening to Abe. And I think they don’t listen to him because they can’t see him as a real person. They see a type. A young, angry, Muslim. It’s very instructive about the dilemmas of producing this play right now. Because it’s almost as if: If a character is Muslim, that’s all that character can be. Therefore, the whole conversation suddenly becomes about whether that Muslim corresponds to some idea that the audience has or doesn’t have. I think that question is actually very instructive. It means that the audience, for whatever reason, is not able to hear the historical, or the emotional truth of that character onstage.
There’s a whole lineage of works that influenced Disgraced — William Faulkner’s Light in August, Shakespeare’s Othello, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River — colored male subjects who perform an act of violence on a white paramour; on a white, desired, erotic object, that has deep racial and political ramifications. There is something in that thematic field that is about shame or disgrace or disgust or self-loathing.
The audience reactions are very passionate. What has surprised you, if anything?
I don’t think anything surprises me anymore. I get called pro-jihadist; I get called anti-Muslim; I get called a brilliant under-miner of tropes, I get called an unconscious lackey to those same tropes. I get the entire spectrum of criticism and praise. I don’t know what to make of it, to be honest. I am deeply affected by the confused, disoriented, and often wounded reaction from the Muslim community. And then there are some very eloquent defenses of the play from the Muslim community. Many times I have Muslim audience members come up to me and say, “I understand what you’re doing. I think it’s important what you’re doing. But they are not going to understand. Why are you doing this to us in front of them?” And I don’t know how to respond to that. I don’t know what to say.
At an event in Atlanta, an Iranian woman told me that my job was to make Americans more knowledgeable about Islam; they should know that it’s not a bad thing. She said my job was to tell audiences that Muslims are ok. But that’s not my job. My job is to craft the basis – the blueprint – for an experience that the audience can have, that will render them more awake and vital and vibrant to their own experience and to that of the world. So that as they walk out of the theater they are more alive. Perhaps through fear, perhaps through joy, but there is something emotional and intellectual that has brought them to some pitch of interiority. Right after her, this mid-60s, portly, white man came up to me and said, “I overheard that conversation and I got to tell you, I saw your show on Broadway, and I didn’t walk away wondering anything about Islam at all. I want to tell you what happened for me. I spent my whole life in the military. I had soldiers under me who were Latino and soldiers who were Black. I had officers above me who were Latino and Black. My whole life, I was surrounded by men who I saw could never really figure out ultimately where their loyalties lay, and that somehow it undermined their careers.” This guy is finding, in his own experience of life, the corollary of what he witnessed onstage. The work doesn’t have resonance if it doesn’t have a universality to it. But somehow you put that crescent moon there and then suddenly it’s like – oh you know, it’s going to tell us about those people. It will have nothing to do with me.
It’s complicated. The reaction is evolving. Philip Himberg at the Sundance Institute Theatre Program wrote me an email about eight months after seeing Disgraced. He had taken his in-laws – he has a Pakistani partner – twelve of them, and they absolutely hated it. But what’s interesting, he said, is that it still comes up in conversation at dinner when they get together and half of them have changed their mind and now think it’s a profound statement about being Muslim in America.
In an interview in the Washington Post in 2014, you said the work you do is in direct dialogue with what’s happening in the Muslim world. Do you still feel that way?
American Dervish is an emotional deconstruction of the literalist orientation of Koranic interpretation — the Koran is interpreted in this very literal way in the Sunni tradition. Disgraced is a portrait of a man who wishes to leave behind his Muslim origins, and offers a legalistic attack on the Islamic mythos. That attack is one that any Muslim in the audience has to deal with. They just do. Disgraced would probably set most theaters on fire in the Muslim world, because the things that are said in the play are just unspeakable. That’s by design. Amir is a flawed truth teller. We can discredit the witness, but we can’t necessarily discredit what he says. Dissonance around the truth value is exactly the trouble of the play, and sits untidily with most Muslim audiences. There is the Muslim viewer — and I remain firmly committed to this interpretation also being valid — who watches the play and says, “Yes, of course, if you eat pork and drink alcohol and marry a white woman, you will end up nowhere good. That’s exactly right. I agree!” That interpretation must sit side-by-side with all the others. Part of the dilemma of the play is that you can’t read it only one way, and that there are certain readings that contradict other readings. That’s the dramatic impasse of the play. That’s also the dramatic impasse of the cultural situation that we’re in — we can’t seem to see a thing for what it is.
There is no conversation about the genetic evolution of a historical reality. There’s no conversation about globalization, or terrorism as the shadow side of globalization. It’s remarkable that there has been no thorough statement of the fact that, if we look at the expansion of globalized power, the interconnectedness of terrorism operates as the very means by which the global network secures ever more effective connection to itself. It’s terrorism that has allowed global power the intrusion into all of our lives in great intimacy that serves its agenda. Terrorism is the shadow side of the very process of global expansion. So why are we talking about Islam? Why are we not talking about what’s actually happening?
Disgraced is a tug of war with identity. Whether it’s the Muslim identity or American identity, and coming up against the American Dream, and the idea that if I do A, B, and C, I will get D, and that is how it’s supposed to be, but, for so many people, it’s not working out that way. Is identity and identity politics something that you’re actively exploring in your work?
I could never have guessed five years ago, when I finished a first draft of this play, that the degradation of social discourse, of rhetoric, between these characters in this play could actually mirror what’s happening out in the world. When I was writing the play, the public discourse was nothing like what is onstage. But what is onstage is actually very similar now to what’s happening out in the world every day. So, in some ways, the play was prescient about some deeper movement, either in American life or global life. I can’t account for that. I was writing something that felt very real to me, drawn from observation, drawn from reflection, drawn from a certain kind of compassion and empathy and consideration and interest in others. It’s my interest in fate – the fate of a person or the fate of a choice.
Even five years ago, I don’t think identity politics were quite as central to the national conversation as they are now. Something about the culture of identity politics seems to foster or encourage the expression of one’s outrage as the expression of one’s authenticity; that the connection to one’s authenticity is the ability to say no to something that has to do with identity and definition. Ultimately what the play is suggesting, is something more along the lines of the Buddhist approach: whatever you take yourself to be is a lie. You take yourself to be a Muslim, that’s a lie. You take yourself to be a rich guy, that’s a lie. You take yourself to be an Indian, that’s a lie. What’s troubling to so many people about the final scene is that it’s inconclusive. The play’s not going to tell you what Amir’s identity is. He has no idea. Do any of us? Or is that a fiction that we operate under until we no longer can? Is it always a false self that advances our interests until it doesn’t?
Disgraced tries to meet audience members where they live and breathe. If they’re open to it, it lets them experience their own tribal identifications and revulsions. And if they’re not, then it allows them to express those things unconsciously to others. The play is trying to evoke terror and pity. Those two emotions that Aristotle identifies as constitutive of true catharsis, true religious catharsis. James Joyce would describe pity as the emotion that unites us to the suffering protagonist, and terror as the emotion that unites us to the secret cause of that suffering. Some people are not ready for that experience.
What keeps bringing you back to theater?
I love it so much. There’s nothing like it. It always breaks my heart. It’s never as good as I want it to be. And then, when it is, I think to myself, “good God there’s nothing like it.” The sense of aliveness. I feel that the theater at its best, and at its root, connects us to the source of our collective being. There’s a way in which it reaches into us. The gathering together within a room to witness something that is actually happening before us takes us back to the ritual situation, and the ritual situation awakens a kind of primordial orientation of awe to experience. That, embedded even in the most bourgeois theatrical setting, is still the seed of this profound religious experience which has the capacity to fill us with a kind of wonder. And that wonder is, I think, very different than the kind of absorption that one can experience from a screen, or the kind of transport that one finds in the loss of one’s attention in a novel, because it’s happening together. It has the potential to reach into us more deeply. You see this kind of collectivist gathering and the power of it, in the Trump rallies. It’s the same thing, it’s just the darker side of it. You can experience levels of your being as a human that you don’t have access to as an individual. It has an ugly side, and it has an absolutely exalted side. It’s the exaltation that moves me so deeply, to which I am so committed, and which I find so rarely. Everybody who loves the theater knows that feeling. It’s a tough thing for us to get out there and slog it out when it’s rare for the audience to have that experience.