Ayad Akhtar, who received the Pulitzer Prize in drama last week, is a man of many talents and daring insights. As an actor, screenwriter, novelist and playwright, he challenges Americans to question their assumptions about race and religion.
Born in New York City to Pakistani immigrants and raised in Milwaukee, Akhtar played an enigmatic Pakistani engineering student who turns from secularism to terrorism in the film “The War Within,” which he also co-wrote.
In his well-received, first novel, published last year, “American Dervish,” Akhtar explored the complexity of the Muslim religious experience in America. Reviewer Wendy Smith wrote in The Washington Post: “Akhtar’s poignant and wise debut announces the arrival of a generous new voice in American fiction.”
Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Disgraced,” a searing tale of a Muslim man’s self-deception, recently finished a successful run at Lincoln Center in New York, a production The Post’s theater critic Peter Marks called “smart and invigorating.” “Disgraced” opens next month in London, where the 42-year-old Harlem resident learned of his award and responded to e-mailed questions.
Give us the elevator pitch on “Disgraced.”
Amir Kapoor, a high-powered corporate attorney, has been hiding his Muslim origins from his Jewish bosses at work, and when he is persuaded by his American wife to assist in the defense of an unjustly accused imam — Amir used to work as a public defender out of law school — the secret he’s been keeping ends up coming out. This sets in motion a series of actions that will tear his life apart.
Now give us the college-seminar perspective explaining what places “Disgraced” among the great American plays. (And you are allowed to talk about it in this vein because you have won the Pulitzer.)
Well, I may still demur. If only as a way to protect my own sense of the ways I feel I still have to grow as a dramatist. But what I think the play appears to have accomplished, at least for some audience members, is a vital, living, tragic situation. For us, tragedy has become disconnected from the mass roots that are at its origins. I wanted to write a play that would have a tragic arc, that would move and audience to pity and terror — (to use the classical formulation) — and to do it in a way that did not preclude the audience gasping at entrances, or actions, moved both tears and raucous laughter. A full engagement of the emotional and intellectual self of the viewer. That, anyway, was the goal.
Why is the play called “Disgraced?”
Firstly, Amir’s disgrace plays itself out mostly in real time in the play. That’s the most obvious level. But then there is another, more metaphorical, or let me say, contextual sense: There are ways that the colonial history of the West is still playing out in the Muslim world. The events that comprise that history — a disgrace of native peoples, as it were — is still very much a part of our contemporary moment. As Faulkner says: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
How does the play blaze a new trail in American theater? How is it different from most of what’s being produced?
I hope that one of the things the play can do is to demonstrate the viability — vital, artistic, perhaps even commercial — of characters who are unusual, either in terms of race or identity. Of course, a South-Asian lead is usually a non-starter, but somehow it seemed not really to be an issue in this case. Audiences seemed to go along for the ride. And willingly.
What odd, troubling or wonderful reactions to the play have you personally received?
The most extraordinary experience I have had is seeing just how many people identify with Amir on their own terms. See themselves as struggling with the very same issue — identification with a false self — as he does. There have been a couple of Holocaust survivors who saw the play who said that Amir’s experience reminded them of what it was like to be Jewish in Central Europe at the time of the war. And there have also been some Muslim viewers who have been troubled by much of what Amir says in the play, and who have wondered if he isn’t, in some way, a mouthpiece for my views. He isn’t, of course. I was trying to stage his war with his own past. A formidable intellect who has brought himself to bear against his own heritage. He is not the first self-rejecting, past-rejecting immigrant to find his way on stage.
How did you learn of your award and what did you do first?
Philip Rinaldi, the press agent at Lincoln Center, called me here in London. I had to ask him if I was dreaming. And then if he had been crank called with the news. He told me AP had called him. It wasn’t a crank call!
What are you working on now?
I’m currently writing my next novel. I also have a new play going up at La Jolla Playhouse in February 2014. A comedy about two sisters and their father very loosely inspired by “Taming of the Shrew.” It’s called “The Who & The What.”