What begins as a cordial dinner party on Manhattan’s Upper East Side soon turns into a battleground when the topics of religion and politics enter the conversation. Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced is a play for our times, one bold enough to tackle controversial subjects that many people want to sidestep. That the play meets these topics head on makes for an absorbing evening of theater. Ivy Vahanian, who plays Emily in Arena Stage’s production, took time from her performing schedule to answer our questions about the play.
The four professionals who gather for a dinner party in Disgraced come from different backgrounds and all have succeeded in their professions. But at what cost? Is it necessary to downplay one’s ethnicity and beliefs in order to move ahead?
As Emily, the answer would shift depending if we are at the beginning of the play or at the end. I think at her core Emily believes that it is necessary to stay true to who you are in any given circumstance and that “moving ahead” requires a belief in self and what we stand for. This though, is a reflection of her unintended naiveté. We see the cost of this directly in the events of the play and how the price she and Amir pay is life-altering.
Playwright Ayad Akhtar contrasts present-day attitudes towards religion with their historical, even ancient, beginnings. Should we expect religion to change like technology does? Or does adhering to long-held beliefs make those religions stronger?
I don’t think religion can change like technology does. These are deeply human, cultural, emotional facets that have worked their way into the psyche of religious peoples and culture in general. None of the characters in this play are religious. They are intelligent enough to reflect on the circumstances (i.e. culture/religious influence/art history) from which they are formed, and, as the viewer, we see directly how much those influences can overrule a very thoughtful group of people. I think religion is only strengthened by a technological world. People are trying to find a center in a rapidly changing landscape.
We are always told to steer clear of discussing politics and religion. But in today’s climate is that possible or even advantageous? If those discussions do occur how can participants on both sides make them teaching moments?
“It’s time we woke up.” This is what my character says and I do believe that if we don’t discuss with clarity and intelligence the current climate of our country and its place in the world, we are only disintegrating the potential for common growth. So much of what divides people is underexposure and ignorance. I think we can teach through clear communication and the bravery of vulnerability…and to take responsibility of our actions. This play, our production, begs us to be adults in a barrage of emotion and primal need.
Nehal Joshi as Amir and Ivy Vahanian as Emily in Disgraced
Why is it important for this play to be staged right now in Washington, D.C.? What do you hope audiences will take away from the performance?
I think the intelligence and efficiency of this script will resonate widely with this community. It asks you to look deeper into the very complex conversation of Islam. It exposes a topic that is not generally discussed and/or revealed. We will never be able to move beyond prejudices without a softening of one’s own beliefs. We are stronger in vulnerability. It doesn’t feel that way, but we are. Personally, I want the audience to leave having witnessed the deep love between Emily and Amir. I think this is a love story…and only until we know ourselves fully can we love another. I want people to put the mirror up to themselves.
How did you prepare for playing your character? Did you find that her beliefs and attitude were similar to your own? Different?
Timothy cast all of us because of an intrinsic understanding of these characters from the absolute beginning. There wasn’t much preparation. We are so blessed to have such a strong script that lets us “play.” We have the trust of a profound director. We have an impeccable creative team to fill in our world onstage with the support of a brilliant institution. And, we are a “family” of actors that deeply love one another. When I am playing a character with this much support, I find it is easy to have her beliefs and attitudes become my own. I do believe we can learn from every human on this planet and as I/Emily learn, there is always room to deepen and grow. At this point, because of my desire to live in her fully, there are no differences.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography