Who are you? I mean, really? Are you who you want to be, pretend to be or who your mother told you you ought to be? This, I think, is the question at the heart of Ayad Akhtar’s searing “Disgraced,” the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that raises more questions than it answers.
It also is the central dilemma facing the protagonist, Amir (Bernard White), a successful American-Pakistani attorney who has fled so far from his Muslim upbringing that he can never be traced back — or so he thinks. Amir has married a lovely blond WASP (the very good Nisi Sturgis), Emily, a visual artist who, ironically, is obsessed with the Islamic imagery that informs her work. As he swaggers around his tastefully appointed New York apartment (attractive, inventive set by John Lee Beatty) in his Armani-type suit and $600 shirts, you tend not to like him very much. But as Amir comes closer to his real self and White grows into the role, there is a sea-change in the way the audience views him.
This is a play about belief: as a simple dinner party explodes into a confrontation on race, religion, sex, identity and justice. Ironically, opening night coincided with the horrific massacres in Paris and, after their bows, the five-member cast joined hands and observed a minute of silence before exiting the stage. Nobody had to wonder why.
Two of the other characters are an obvious setup. Isaac, an influential Jewish gallery owner (a likable J. Anthony Crane) and his African-American wife, Jory, also a member of Amir’s legal firm. No parentheses here for Zakiya Young in the role. She may have a smaller, though pivotal, part but she is the strongest member of the cast. The smallest role is played by Behzad Dabu, as Amir’s teenage nephew Abe (who has changed his name from Hussein). But Abe-Hussein is the catalyst that will bring Amir’s carefully constructed world crashing down around his well-coiffed head.
The cast is very very good, with Young and White as the standouts, and has been directed for maximum tension by Kimberly Senior, who shepherded this play from its beginnings in Chicago to a successful New York run.
Much has been written about “Disgraced” since its release for regional performance, including on this site. It recently was named by American Theater Magazine as “the most produced play in the country” with stagings at 18 major regional theaters this season and 32 productions planned in the next two years. So I won’t belabor the point. Go see it. It may change the way you think about other people of other ethnicities. It may change the way you think about yourself.