In Conversation with Playwright Ayad Akhtar

June 20, 2017
Natalie Hulla
Linda Lombardi, Arena Stage production dramaturg, interviews Disgraced playwright Ayad Akhtar about the cultural and personal significance of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

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.

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 300 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.

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 theatre 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.

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.

This piece was originally written for Arena Stage for its 2016 production of Disgraced.

To learn more about the Playhouse production of Disgraced, visit the production detail page.