Two weeks ago, as the first chill of fall was descending on New England, I caught the train to Manhattan and strolled happily to Lincoln Center. One reason I was happy is that along the way I was able to stuff my briefcase full of truffles at the first chocolate store I could find. But I also knew I was going to watch some excellent theater.
I have been thinking about the experience ever since.
The play was “Disgraced,” by Ayad Akhtar, and this new production was held in the Claire Tow Theater, an experimental stage whose well-appointed intimacy is ideally suited to exhibit the dramatic kinesis and collision of the play’s four characters. The actors seem so close that they might as well reach into your chest directly as they rip out your heart (which, by the end of a taut ninety minutes, believe me they do).
Perhaps I feel so passionately about the play because of the friends with whom I saw it. The group included a religiously devout Muslim military officer from a major nation in the Middle East. He had never before seen a play—this was his first experience of theater, ever. When I looked at him as the lights came up, I had a profound understanding of the meaning of the word “catharsis” and a renewed appreciation of the power of art.
Even more, as a playwright, Akhtar has built his portrait of human character on a scaffold of themes central to this blog.
As Akhtar writes on his website, Disgraced tells the story of Amir—played by Aasif Mandvi—“a Muslim-American lawyer who is rapidly moving up the corporate ladder while distancing himself from his cultural roots. At the moment of achieving his life-long ambition, he falls victim to professional and personal betrayals, not least of all, his own betrayal of himself.”
What’s interesting to me is that Akhtar depicts both the “corporate ladder” Amir is climbing and the “cultural roots” from which he has distanced himself in legal terms. Amir works at a successful Manhattan law firm with a practice focused on mergers and acquisitions, and he explains his drive toward assimilation as a flight from Islamic sharia, especially Islamic family law (at least as he understands it).
I won’t spoil the play by discussing this clash of legal cultures in more detail, so I’ll simply note that it’s characteristic of our particular moment in the evolution of global legal diversity.
Equally important, Akhtar uses the theme of legal difference to explore not simply social and political issues but artistic ones—matters of form. These are given voice by Amir’s wife, Emily (played by Heidi Armbruster), a painter enamored of Islamic art, whose aesthetic lessons she tries to incorporate into her work.
Emily is especially taken by the tradition of Islamic tiling: its intricate patterning and its “flattening of the picture plane” are for her a path through which an artist can reveal larger human truths. The dissolution of the individual personality implicit in mirrored design promises to reveal something larger about humanity as a whole by highlighting the interaction of each of its members (or component tiles), in turn revealing the individual person afresh.
To emphasize that Akhtar is concerned with formal, artistic questions as much as social ones, the play begins and ends with a meditation on Emily’s portraiture. More strikingly, in the second half of the drama, one of Emily’s tile-inspired paintings hangs prominently upstage, above the couple’s mantle, providing a running commentary on the construction of the play itself.
The painting and its dramaturgic importance was captured in this photograph in a recent New York Times review. The image suggests that director Kimberly Senior sought to emphasize the pattern of inversions in Akhtar’s text.
For me, what’s most arresting about “Disgraced” is that its patterned symmetries mirror across the intersecting lines of legal rules and their interpretations. Akhtar uses the same cross-cultural legal counter that tears Amir apart to suggest how writing influenced by a non-Western, non-representational approach to aesthetics can be used to reveal truths of a profoundly personal, human nature.