Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer prize-winning play “Disgraced” playing at San Jose Stage theater, takes the audience on a deep dive into the complexity of identity formation, change and dynamism of identity, and also identity destruction.
The entire drama plays out in a tastefully decorated, beautiful Manhattan apartment, occupied by Pakistan born, Amir Kapoor (Damien Seperi) and his caucasian wife, Emily (Allison F. Rich). Amir is quickly climbing the corporate ladder at his Manhattan law firm and has so wholeheartedly embraced the American dream with its trappings of wealth and success that in order to get a better acceptance, he passes himself off as an immigrant from India, when a partner assumes him to be from India. That is an early peek into the close cousin of identity and the complex arena of stereotypes, where Pakistan generates stereotypes of terrorism and India of engineers and education. If Amir may be embracing fiscally conservative values, his wife Emily is a bleeding heart liberal. While Amir is hiding aspects of his identity and rejects everything Islam, Emily seeks out liberal causes and implores her husband to stand up and fight for what is just and on behalf of those falsely accused of terrorism related activities, in the aftermath of 9/11.
Emily and Amir are hosting a dinner party for their elite, high-powered friends, Jory (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn), a lawyer from Amir’s firm and her husband Isaac (Jonathan Rhys Williams), a curator at the Whitney Museum. Just as Amir denounces everything Islam, Emily constantly contradicts his criticism of faith and insists on finding “beauty and wisdom in Islamic tradition”. Her paintings draw on Islamic art and she insists that the Muslims gave the world a “visual perspective”. She has created an Islamic piece of art and is hoping that she will get her big break through Isaac. Isaac is Jewish but critical of Israel’s military actions in the region. His wife Jory is African-American and is fully aware of the impact of racial profiling.
As the story advances, through various twists and turns, a complex picture and many questions emerge. Do people feel pressured to renounce their “other” cultural identities in order to gain mainstream acceptance and climb the ladder of success in America? Do people suppress rather than erase, sometimes with bitterness, their primary identity, even as they embrace mainstream values? Amir shares the story of growing up Muslim where his mother not only wanted him to embrace his culture and religion but also taught him prejudice against “others”. Albeit he embraced mainstream values but deep inside he felt rage.
The fascinating aspect of this play is that it centers not just around Amir’s story. Jory has her own identity battle, as does Isaac and in fact, Emily has her own identity issues. At an individual level, there are multitude of factors that contribute to a person’s identity, including geographic location where one grows up, one’s religion, one’s peers, parents, teachers, siblings, as well as one’s personality and temperament. However, when others perceive an individual, they tend to simplify and often judge or assume someone’s identity based on one or two factors that matter to the perceiver. At societal level what creates infinitely amazing kaleidoscopic reality is how diverse identities of multitude of people collide and intersect at multiple levels, especially when invited to focus exclusively on identity, as in the current political environment.
And finally, constant and extreme pressure to prove oneself, to suppress one’s innate identity and everything it meant in one’s formative years; real or imagined pressure to renounce one’s faith, religion or culture in order to fit in, to prove oneself, takes an incredible toll on a person. The stress can manifest in diverse ways including depression, addictive behaviors, violence, and irreversible adverse impact on health. At least one or two of these are manifested in this story.
San Jose Stage Theater (www.thestage.org) has always brought bold and relevant productions and participated in raising important questions and promote crucial dialog in our society and this play is immensely pertinent in the current political, cultural environment. Great kudos to the production team, to Ayad Akhtar, to Director William Ontiveros and the entire creative team.