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
Click to purchase tickets to Disgraced at Arena Stage.
Avoiding talk about religion and politics is prudent, particularly during a dinner party like the one we see in Disgraced that brings together four friends from very different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The setting is an upscale apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a balcony providing a spectacular view of the Chrysler building. Amir Kapoor (Nehal Joshi) is a corporate lawyer at a major firm who specializes in the lucrative work of mergers and acquisitions. His wife, Emily (Ivy Vahanian), is an artist whose career is about to take off. The dinner guests include Isaac (Joe Isenberg), a Jewish curator who is helping Emily with a new show, and his African-American wife, Jory (Felicia Curry), a fellow associate at Amir’s firm. The evening begins on a civil note, but before the main course is served, tempers flare, accusations fly, and violence erupts.
Ayad Akhtar has written a play for our times, one that delves into topics that most of us think about but rarely dare to voice our opinions upon. After seeing this play, chances are conversations will follow. And in our current political climate, that’s not a bad thing. Disgraced, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama, is the most-produced play of the 2015/16 theater season. Akhtar, a novelist and screenwriter, has obviously touched a nerve about what it means to be an American and if assimilation, particularly for Muslims, is ever really possible.
Samir Raval and Nehal Joshi
Amir and Emily are an odd couple, and not just because of the differences in their backgrounds. He was born in Pakistan and raised as a Muslim. But with his feet firmly planted in America, he’s left his religion behind, deriding Islam as an ancient religion out of place in the modern world. Emily is obviously American and not Muslim. However, she tends to romanticize Islam and even uses Islamic images in her artwork. (The set design includes one of Emily’s paintings over the fireplace.) Amir’s nephew, Abe Jensen (Samip Raval), is similarly conflicted about his origins, having changed his name after being born Hussein Malik. Yet Abe is determined to help an iman who has been arrested and asks Amir to help. Amir initially refuses, but when pressured by Emily, agrees. Although Amir doesn’t actually represent the iman, his name winds up in the newspapers, exposure that will damage his position at his firm.
The evening of the dinner party, Isaac arrives a half hour early, followed shortly by Jory. While Emily rushes to get dressed, Amir, after rudely admonishing Isaac for arriving ahead of schedule, grudgingly pours drinks and attempts to entertain his guests. The mixup in timing is the first indication that things are about to go awry.
Conversation over the fennel and anchovy salad begins innocently enough, but when talk turns to Amir’s involvement with the iman’s case, the discussion grows more heated. Akhtar’s dialogue is, at times, searing. The playwright has talked about how his own struggle with his identity, ethnically and religiously, inspired the play. While Amir has made accommodations to be accepted and succeed in mainstream America, when challenged, he finds himself defending Islam even excusing acts of violence, a moment which produced gasps from the audience.
Joe Isenberg,Felicia Curry, Ivy Vahanian, and Nehal Joshi
The other explosions have less to do with identity and more to do with the typical conflicts that erupt when hard-driving professionals compete for success in the board room and the bedroom. Amir receives bad news on both fronts. How much his cultural struggles contribute to the outcome becomes less important than how he will move ahead.
Arena Stage’s production benefits from strong direction by Timothy Douglas who also directed Arena’s King Hedley II. Confrontations between the actors, both verbal and physical, are staged for maximum effect. Pacing is impressive. At 90 minutes with no intermission, the action never flags and when the lights go down, the audience is left breathless.
The four actors are up to the challenges. As Amir, Joshi displays an impressive range, from a hard-hitting attorney at the top of his game, to someone who sees his dreams crash and burn. Emotions are conveyed, not only with facial expressions, but with body language. In the beginning he seems puffed up by his own importance; by the end, he seems deflated.
Vahanian goes toe-to-toe with Joshi, never backing down even when faced with her own wrong-doing. We watch her transformation from loving, idealistic wife, to a woman who can stand on her own and no longer needs to define herself as part of a multi-ethnic couple.
I found Curry’s performance most powerful. Her time on stage was less than the other actors, but she left such a strong impression that her absence was immediately felt. Isenberg’s character came off as the least likable, someone who was ready to cross even those closest to him in order to achieve his goals. As Abe/Hussein, Raval’s performance was telling, reflecting the conflict felt by so many young Muslim men who struggle to fit into a society that often targets them.
Set Designer Tony Cisek has created the quintessential Manhattan apartment for urban professionals. Even before Amir and Emily begin their first conversation, we understand their aspirations and life-style. Costumes by Toni-Leslie James are perfect, while lighting by Michael Gilliam and original compositions by sound designer Fitz Patton take us from scene to scene and heighten the emotional impact.
Disgraced is a provocative evening of theater. Don’t miss it.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Opening: Left to right, Joe Isenberg, Nehal Joshi, Ivy Vahanian and Felicia Curry
1101 Sixth Street SW