The theatre has the power to do a lot to an audience: make us laugh, make us cry, make us think. It’s the thinking that playwright Ayad Akhtar’s work seems to invoke. If you’ve heard anything about our upcoming production of his Pulitzer Prize winning play Disgraced then you might assume he’s interested in prompting us to think about topics such as Islam in today’s world, or religious conflict. Those are certainly subjects in the play, but Akhtar uses them as a vehicle for the exploration of something far more universal: identity. “For a lot of people to see or hear the word ‘Muslim’ is not too dissimilar to hearing the word ‘Cancer,” Akhtar explained to CBS News earlier this year before Disgraced closed on Broadway. His solution to this problem as a playwright: “keep telling really great stories and hopefully enough people catch on, and they’re like, ‘You know what? It’s not about that. It’s about something else, like being human.'”
The playwright explained on the PBS Newshour last October that he didn’t recognize this overarching topic in his work at first either. “I came to understand what the play was really trying to get at was the way in which we secretly continue to hold on to our tribal identities, our identities of birth, despite getting more enlightened.” In a ‘melting pot’ such as America this is a daunting thought. Is it possible that despite our best efforts, our belief in rags to riches stories and the positive power of education and diversity, that we can never really leave the influence of our origins behind? Akhtar says that it’s his job as a playwright to prompt these types of questions, not answer them. “I get away with trying to see what the various perspectives yield in terms of human lives and the solutions that individuals come up with to these questions [of identity].”
In a fast moving world in which we barely have time to digest most information coming at us from the outside, like this blog for example, we rarely, if ever, have the chance to look at our inside world and the more hidden parts of our identities. Akhtar hopes Disgraced gives the audience that opportunity in a way only theatre can. “I think that at its best what the theatre does is that it gathers us together. We – social herding, animals – arrive together into a room and we behold something that actually happens before us, not something mediated to us by a screen…. a kind of communion happens in the audience between audience and performers that allows us, reaches in to us where we can experience things more deeply than we can individually.” By sitting together, watching live, right in front of our eyes, the main character of Amir run head on into the aspects of his identity he has pushed aside and refused to deal with, the playwright believes we are more viscerally provoked to ask questions about identity than we would be through other mediums. It’s the difference between watching a car crash on TV and seeing it happen while sitting at a red light. The questions of identity he raises through the play are provocative – what does it really mean to be my nationality, my gender, my race, my religion, what does it mean to be me? “Those sound like some pretty good questions for our time,” says Akhtar.