"Disgraced," an incendiary Pulitzer Prize winner, opens at the Wells
March 29, 2018
“Disgraced,” the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner by novelist-playwright Ayad Akhtar, upends liberal ideas of tolerance. The play is so intense that audience members often need to decompress after with “community conversations” hosted by the venue.
The emotional ferocity isn’t lost on those involved in the production.
Director Khanisha Foster and actors Joy Jones and Taha Mandviwala sit on a recent day in the lobby of the Wells Theatre in Norfolk, where “Disgraced” begins preview performances Wednesday and officially opens on Saturday. The discussion circles back to the idea of diversity and what it means in a fragmented social-media age.
The 90-minute play centers on a dinner party hosted by a couple on the Upper East Side of Manhattan: Amir, a Muslim-raised acquisitions attorney of Pakistani heritage, and his wife, Emily, a white artist. They’ve invited another couple – an African American lawyer who works with Amir, and her white, Jewish husband – and right away the atmosphere shifts from cordial to intense.
“Disgraced” incinerates romantic notions of tolerance among so-called progressives. In anticipation of polarizing feelings and ideas the play may evoke, theatergoers are invited to community conversations, or talkbacks, after the production.
“The play is rapid-fire, and everything unfolds very quickly and it’s very visceral,” says Foster , who has directed other productions with powerful sociopolitical themes, including “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” “It’s a play that offers several different points of view and several different counterpoints. We found that as this play has toured the country and I’ve done some educational stuff for it and been in the talkbacks, people really need the space to process and they need to have a guided space to process the play.”
The talkbacks are moderated, but not by someone directly involved in the production. The community conversations at the Wells, for instance, center on the audience. In that space, “an audience member who had a completely different reaction to something in the play may be surprised by how the person next to them interpreted it,” Foster says.
“Disgraced” explores several sociopolitical themes. Chief among them are Islamophobia, and identity politics among Muslim Americans. As the conversation at the dinner party turns to politics and religion, the tension builds.
For the actors, “Disgraced” gives them an opportunity to flex their skills in demanding roles .
Mandviwala, who plays Amir’s nephew Abe, related to his character’s sometimes conflicting identities as a Muslim in America. The actor’s family emigrated in 1993 from Pakistan and settled in southeastern Kentucky, where he was one of five students of color at his school.
“The play itself deals with a lot of rejecting-your-faith sentiments, and Abe is the antithesis of that at the beginning of the play,” Mandviwala says. “I grew up in this interesting dynamic where my life was compartmentalized. I’d go to school and be around all of these white kids and a predominantly Christian culture. And I would go home to a Muslim household and have all the tradition of home. I’d bounce between the two. This play really explores that dual identity and what you have to compromise to balance the two.”
Jones plays Jory, a colleague of Amir’s. The Washington, D.C., native says the character, like the others in the play, isn’t easy to process. For her role, Jones says she remembered something an acting teacher told her about bringing yourself to a character and loving your character, which wasn’t easy with Jory, Jones says.
“She’s a black conservative who says she’s from the ghetto and married to a Jewish husband,” Jones says. “So any one of those, depending on what you bring to the theater, could be grounds for you not rooting for her. As an actor, you want to love your characters. You bring yourself to the character; you don’t bring the character to you. But there’s a challenge with a character who may not be liked or empathetic.”
The colliding cultures throughout “Disgraced” appealed to Foster as a director. The daughter of a Black Panther father and a Midwestern white mother, Foster says she likes exploring how cultures mix and challenge each other.
“I always ask myself that question, ‘Are you where you come from? Or are you what you make of yourself? And where do they overlap?’” she says. “This play asks those questions and doesn’t really answer them. We’re in this renaissance where you’re seeing different characters come together in theater, not because it’s kitschy or cool but because it’s true. It’s real life.”