Barely six months ago, Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” ended its Broadway run where it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013. FUSION’s outstanding production of “Disgraced” is the first in the U. S. after its New York close—a theatrical coup for which Albuquerque audiences should be grateful.
Simply put, “Disgraced” is about Muslims in America and Americans’ attitudes toward them. The play is constructed with the precision of a fine watch, and it is as timely as tomorrow. Under the discerning and sensitive direction of co-founder Jacqueline Reid, the FUSION production features an excellent cast portraying relatable characters confronting contemporary issues with insight and balance.
Like it or not, our world is divided into tribes, religions, races, nationalities, cultures, ethnicities, creeds, sects, and peoples (as in “you people!”). Right now, much of the world is focused on the Middle East and the adherents of Islam in its various forms. Internecine wars are causing vast migrations of displaced Muslims. The world’s humanitarian resolve is being tested as are individual attitudes.
“Disgraced” has four scenes covering six months and is played without intermission. The setting is a stylish apartment on Manhattan’s upper east side, handsomely captured by scenic designer Richard K. Hogle. The opening two scenes abound with plot details that become important as the play progresses. At the play’s start, darkly handsome Amir stands in a dress shirt and coat but no pants, his arm crossed stiffly on his chest. He is posing for his attractive younger wife Emily who is sketching him for a portrait from the waist up.
Amir was born in the U. S. to immigrant Pakistani parents. The family name was Abdullah and they were Muslim. Amir changed his last name to Kapoor—a common surname in Hindu India—and rejected his Islamic roots. He joined a New York City law firm whose senior partners are Jewish. Religion was not an issue.
Emily is interested in Islam’s contributions to art, especially her art. She sees Muslim art as “ a doorway to the most extraordinary freedom . . . which only comes through a kind of profound submission.” The word “Islam” means submission.
Amir’s nephew, born Hussein Malik in Pakistan, has become Abe Jensen in the U. S. but still practices Islam. Abe wants his uncle Amir to help a jailed Imam, but Amir calls the cleric a Muslim bigot and relates a painful story of how his mother introduced him to anti-Semitic intolerance.
Amir and Emily invite another couple to dinner in the play’s powerful third scene. Isaac is an assimilated Jew, an art curator who is interested in exhibiting Emily’s paintings and in Emily herself. His wife, Jordan, is an African-American lawyer in Amir’s law firm. In cosmopolitan New York City, it doesn’t seem strange to have a Jewish art expert, his black wife, their ex-Muslim host, and his blond WASP trophy wife sharing a meal—but it is a combustible assortment. Hidden prejudices are fed with anger and pride. The solvent of alcohol wipes away the veneer of civility and violence is unleashed.
In the final scene, a changed Hussein (no longer Abe) returns wearing a Kufi, the Muslim skullcap, and presenting the argument for Muslim militancy. I won’t disclose any more.
The acting is wonderful throughout. Samuel James Shoemaker-Trejo does a fine job as Abe/Hussein, capturing in his short time on stage the subtle shifts that mark the development of a militant activist.
Angela Littleton does her best work that I have seen as Jordan, Isaac’s wife, whose growing disillusion is painful. Littleton gets plenty of laughs with her pointed observations, but her character is hurt in a fight that is not hers.
Gregory Wagrowski is perfect as Isaac. His character’s taunting debate with Amir is masterfully presented, and his growing anger is palpable as things spiral out of hand.
John San Nicolas with his dark hooded eyes, neatly trimmed beard, and grey-flecked black hair is physically ideal as Amir. I enjoyed his performance. It must be difficult to portray a character whose self-loathing is so thoroughly turned inward. San Nicholas manages subtly to project the growing danger of Amir’s repressed anger. The inevitable explosion is frightening.
Finally, Celia Schaefer skillfully presents the endlessly fascinating character of Emily. Schaefer has an expressive face with an enchanting smile that she often uses while trying to deal with the complexities of her husband. Her character is accustomed to employing her sexual powers, but Amir appears to grow immune. Schaefer makes Emily a complicated and compelling creature, a survivor for whom we root.
If you see only one play this year, make it “Disgraced.”