Choosing to stage a production of “Disgraced,” Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about an assimilated Pakistani-American attorney who disavows his Muslim roots yet cannot seem to shake their imprint on his psyche, was a little more complicated than green-lighting, say, “Guys and Dolls,” the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s last show.
“We wanted to be sure we were prepared as a theater for the reaction of the community and of our patrons to a fairly hard-hitting show,” said Mike Ginsberg, president of the board of the PPT.
The show is unquestionably controversial, unabashedly bringing to the fore issues of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and race in an 80-minute tour-de-force centered on a tony dinner party gone awry, the intensity of which some critics have compared to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “God of Carnage.”
“We pride ourselves on being an inclusive theater with a broad range of productions,” Ginsberg said. “But as a board member, I was concerned that we be prepared. I was concerned that this might be a show that could generate protests or backlashes from various groups.”
Deciding to go with the instincts of PPT producing artistic director Ted Pappas, the board agreed that the importance of the themes within “Disgraced,” and their topicality, outweighed the concerns of engendering controversy.
In fact, controversy may be a good thing.
“It’s a good play about human emotion and human culture and whether you can ever move beyond your people’s history,” Ginsberg explained. “At the end of the day, I think it’s an important show because it deals with those kinds of emotions and raising issues that are making the audience go home and think.
“I have great respect for Pittsburgh and its theater community,” he continued. “If there are adverse reactions, people will go home and talk about it. But if we resist shows that cause people to go home and think, we’re not doing our job as a theater.”
“Disgraced” premiered in Chicago in 2012 and moved to Broadway in 2014, where it ran for five months. It may be the most produced play in regional theaters this season, with more than 50 productions slated over the next two years.
The play is jarring in a number of ways, challenging popular Western notions regarding the implications of Islamic fealty and, more generally, ingrained ethnic allegiances, including those of Jews.
In “Disgraced,” corporate attorney Amir hides his Pakistani-Muslim background from the Jewish law firm where he works, and where he thinks he is poised to make partner, going so far as to change his name so that his colleagues believe he is of Indian descent. He is married to Emily, a white artist who is interested in Islamic forms. Amir’s 20-something nephew, Hussein, has also changed his name — to Abe — in order to seem more mainstream American. When the imam at the mosque Abe has been attending is arrested, Amir gets tangentially involved and is mistakenly linked to the Muslim leader. His world begins to unravel as a result, with tensions coming to a climax over dinner with Jory, an African-American attorney, and her Jewish husband, Isaac.
The themes underscored in “Disgraced” are weighty, noted Tracy Brigden, director of the PPT’s production, and could even be described as Shakespearean. But at the same time, she said, “it’s really a snappy, smart, engaging, well-made play,” quick-paced and performed without an intermission.
The show could at once be construed as a critique of maintaining “tribal” loyalties, and an embrace of those allegiances.
“The challenge is how to not tip it one way or another,” she said. “The fear is that it tips to be an anti-Muslim play, which is even more of an issue now than when it was written because of the swelling of anti-Muslim sentiment in this country.”
Akhtar, the playwright, is a first-generation Pakistani-American writer who grew up in suburban Milwaukee. The play is set in 2011 and 2012 — post 9/11 but prior to the recent radical Islamist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.
Themes of cultural and religious identity are played out in the story not only by its two Muslim characters, but also by the character of art curator Isaac — an archetypal New York Jew, liberal and enlightened and secular but nonetheless awash with Jewish ethnicity.
At one point Amir refers to the Quran as “one very long hate-mail letter to humanity,” yet startlingly admits to feeling a “sense of pride” after the 9/11 attacks. Isaac proclaims he is “critical of Israel” but expresses outrage when its enemies threaten to wipe it off the map.
“I think the playwright was also trying to make a comment about the tension between Jews and Muslims,” said Ginsberg, who is Jewish. “It’s distressing to hear that conversation between two Americans, one with a Jewish background and one with a Muslim background. They are both assimilated. Amir is an unbeliever. But when I thought about this play, I thought that [the playwright’s] comment is on the immutability of your cultural background. You can’t stop being Jewish; you can’t stop being Muslim.”
The action in the play comes to a head when Amir is pushed “to the worst moment of his life,” Brigden said, and that moment may or may not be linked to his Muslim upbringing.
The ending of the show “purposely leaves the issues of the play in a gray zone so people will walk out and talk about it,” said Brigden, who also serves as the artistic director of City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side. This is the third show she has directed for the PPT.
“I think people will walk out exhausted,” Ginsberg said. “I think it will start a lot of conversation. That’s a good thing for theater. People will walk out of this show and talk about these issues, and that’s a great thing.”
“Disgraced” runs from March 10 to April 10 at the O’Reilly Theater. For tickets call 412.316.1600 or visit ppt.org.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.