To appreciate the relevance of playwright Ayad Akhtar’s work, you need look no further than two eerie coincidences that shadowed his debut drama, “Disgraced.” The play, which portrays the downfall of a Muslim American lawyer, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2013. The day the award was announced, two Muslims deposited pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line of the Boston marathon. A second grisly coincidence came a few weeks later. On the day “Disgraced” opened in London two Muslims murdered and tried to behead a British soldier on a busy street in what one said was revenge for the British army’s killing of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nobody linked these attacks to Akhtar’s play, but they were nonetheless chilling reminders of the violence that hovers at the edges of the territory he explores. “The work I’m doing is in direct dialogue with what’s happening in the Muslim world,” he said recently over dinner in New York.
The 43-year-old playwright is a man of meditative calm, soft-spoken and genial, in stark contrast to the volcanic scenes he presents onstage. A graduate of Brown and Columbia, he roams easily across a vast intellectual expanse, gliding from a discussion of statecraft in Shakespeare to the mysteries of the prophet to plots and subplots in “Seinfeld.” But what most absorbs him is the question of Muslim identity in the turbulent post-9/11 world. It’s the subject that informs all of his work. Akhtar himself has struggled to come to terms with his heritage, and his deeply personal exploration into his faith and culture have led him to an artistic awakening. In a flurry over the past few years, he has crafted a series of powerful dramas that have established him as a dazzling new voice in American theater. His masterfully constructed plays are brainy, incisive and humorous. His characters are hyper-modern blending ancient beliefs with beeping cellphones and online dating. His themes, though seen through a Muslim lens, are universal: self-awareness, religious devotion, sibling love, a father’s dreams for his daughter. “The funny thing is, I don’t feel like I’m writing about Muslim American life,” Akhtar explains. “I feel like I’m writing about American life.”
In “Disgraced,” which opens on Broadway on Oct. 23, corporate lawyer Amir Kapoor conceals his Muslim background from his firm with devastating consequences. “The Who & the What,” now playing at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater until July 27, features tech-savvy but traditional Afzal Jatt who fractures his family when he rejects his daughter’s interpretation of the prophet and the role of women in Islam. “The Invisible Hand,” a financial thriller about an American investment banker kidnapped in Pakistan, premiered in St. Louis to rave reviews and will have its New York debut in November.
By some measures, Akhtar is thoroughly American: born on Staten Island and raised in the Midwest. Both his parents are doctors who emigrated from Pakistan in the late 1960s. A Muslim identity pervaded his family to varying degrees — his father abstained from practice while his grandmother was so devout she lowered her eyes every time the prophet was mentioned. Young Ayad was drawn to his faith and went through a period of intense religious commitment. As he got older, he wanted to fit into American life but often felt invisible among the white kids in his suburban Brookfield, Wis., neighborhood. “I didn’t have a place in the culture in the same way that my white friends did,” he recalls.
Acceptance, he imagined, required a denial of his ancestry. When he was in his 20s at a dinner party in Paris, someone asked him where he was from, and he gave his standard reply: America. His dinner companions weren’t satisfied. “No, but where are you from?” they pressed him. “No, I’m from America,” he repeated. They challenged him again, demanding to know why, if his origins were Pakistani, he insisted on saying he was from America. “Well,” Akhtar shot back, “because I’m not from Pakistan.” At this time he was deep into writing a novel about a poet who worked at Goldman Sachs. Although the main character had Pakistani roots, the story line had little to do with Pakistan, or Islam — Akhtar wasn’t ready yet to explore his heritage. Instead he strove to create a generic exploration of a man’s inner life — a tale, he was certain, was destined to be the next Great American Novel. “I was convinced of that, without any irony,” he says. He completed the novel after six years and soon had to admit its failure. No publisher, no literary agent was interested. Even his friends panned it. “It was just not me,” he recalls. “I thought I was writing what I knew, but I wasn’t.”
By 2003, he was completing the film program at Columbia and was writing a screenplay with two fellow students. The subject was a difficult one, given the still-fresh terror attacks of 2001 and the launch of the U.S. war in Iraq. “The War Within,” which was released in 2005, centers on a radicalized Pakistani engineering student who comes to America to carry out a suicide bombing in New York’s Grand Central Station. In addition to co-writing the script, Akhtar plays the lead role of the bomber Hassan. His portrayal subtly reveals Hassan’s inner conflicts over his terrorist action. “The War Within,” which was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best screenplay, pushed Akhtar toward an artistic epiphany. He was finally ready to address his religious inheritance. “The film was the preparatory gesture,” he says. “It was part of a process of coming out in some way. It was me fully accepting that I was going to represent myself as Pakistani, as Muslim.”
Over the next few years Akhtar had a burst of inspiration. A novel came: the acclaimed coming-of-age tale, “American Dervish.” Plays came: Over a fervid eight-month period he wrote drafts of all three plays that have landed in New York — and one other that is still in his desk drawer. He had ideas for still more plays, and he started a new novel. Akhtar had found his voice, and he became obsessed by the task at hand. He now works constantly to bring his vision to life. Some years ago, he took up meditation and at times breaks off from his labors, as he describes it, “to enter a kind of pregnant fertile blankness.” Then he’s back at it, writing, researching, attending rehearsals: “I don’t have a personal life.” Not that he’s complaining. He knows he’s living the writer’s dream. After the Pulitzer, he was showered with attention and requests to take on new projects — none of which he has time to pursue. He just wants to keeping writing and learning to write better. “It’s an amazing blessing that people take any interest in my work,” he says. “I’m not just saying that. After being through so much struggle for a long time, I really recognize the beauty and the blessing.”
In some ways, the world can’t help but take notice, for Akhtar’s plays reflect intractable historical conflicts. The scenes of Sunni extremists sweeping over parts of Syria and Iraq, slaughtering many in their path, are only the latest examples. As the playwright puts it: “There are subtle ways in which private life is affected by upheavals happening all over the planet.” In “Disgraced,” a sophisticated New York dinner party disintegrates when the Muslim American mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer Amir admits that he felt a twinge of pride as he watched the Twin Towers collapse on Sept. 11. A woman from his firm challenges him: “Pride about what?” she wants to know. “About the towers coming down? About people getting killed?” By all appearances Amir is a successful American: he has an expensive New York apartment, drinks pricey malt whiskey and wears $600 Charvet shirts. But his reply reveals a primal instinct lurking in his ancient past. The terror attacks, he tells his colleague, made him proud “that we were finally winning. . . . I guess I forgot . . . which we I was. . . . It’s tribal. . . . It’s in the bones.”
Akhtar turns an introspective eye on Islam’s tough questions. Like the daughter Zarina in “The Who & the What,” he has long wondered about the true nature of the prophet Muhammad. In the play, Zarina has written a novel portraying the seventh-century founder of Islam as a real man; her aim, as she puts it, is to consider “who he really was” — to view him not just as a figure of worship but as a human. In considering the prophet, Zarina raises questions about the treatment of women under Islam. “I hate what the faith does to women,” she says. “For every story about [the prophet’s] generosity or his goodness, there’s another that’s used as an excuse to hide us, erase us.” Her father, Afzal, is outraged not only because of her blasphemy but because of the dangerous implications for a daughter he loves beyond measure. “In Pakistan, she would be killed for this,” he cries. Then, trembling at such a prospect, he adds: “If anything happened to her . . . .” But in the end, his ire gets the best of him and he wants to erase Zarina from his mind, telling her: “You make me regret the day you were born.” Akhtar has been obsessed with the prophet since he dreamed about him at age 8. He fully understands Afzal’s frenzy, but he also is in sympathy with Zarina. “I’m still trying to understand what the Prophet means not only to me but to our community,” he says.
The impassioned characters and raw emotions of Akhtar’s plays make for gripping stage entertainment. But the acrimony of the debates sometimes is too much for the playwright himself. Akhtar is amazed — and a little stunned — that these are characters he created: the intolerant Afzal, the rash Zarina, the callous Amir. While they reflect shades of a reality he’s witnessed, he finds it hard at times to listen to their lines in rehearsal. “An actor will say something and suddenly I’ll be shocked that I’ve written this thing,” he says. “I can’t believe it. I want to leave the room.”
The Who & the What continues through July 27 at the Lincoln Center Theater, 10 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York. 212-875-5456. www.lincolncenter.org.