Ayad Akhtar recently heard from a college student who thinks his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “Disgraced,” is unfair to Muslims. This has happened a lot, as his sudden breakthrough projects have touched the raw nerve connecting Islam and America.
“It’s a very difficult moment,” Akhtar says. “I understand that people are confused.”
In “Disgraced,” the country’s most-produced new play this season (it’s now at Arena Stage), a Manhattan corporate lawyer questions his suppressed Muslim identity as his white wife — an up-and-coming New York painter — embraces Islamic artistic traditions. In his serio-comedy “The Who and the What,” arriving next month at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre, a young Atlanta woman at odds with her Muslim upbringing ignites a ferocious family debate by writing a novel reimagining the prophet Muhammad’s sexual desires.
Emerging from Akhtar at the same time: “The Invisible Hand,” a drama about a U.S. investment banker forced to help his Pakistani captors fund themselves through the stock market, and the praised 2012 novel “American Dervish,” which investigates an upbringing not unlike his own, as a first-generation Pakistani American raised near Milwaukee. The result is a flurry of writing — actually stockpiled over years before Akhtar, now 45, was “discovered” — that has drawn acclaim for its penetrating depiction of Muslim American identity while aggravating some of its subjects.
For any group under attack, of course, the logical posture is to show no weakness.
“I totally get it,” the amiable yet tightly focused Akhtar says in a low-key Manhattan restaurant. “I respect it. But I can’t control my artistic obsessions and passions. And if I control that stuff, then the work has no vitality. Nobody’s going to care. And they’re not going to feel connected to it in a personal way if they don’t share my background. That’s the goal, is to reach a kind of — universality? — something in everyone.”
The scripts may have been written several years ago, but recent campaign rhetoric that includes stopping Muslims at the border has only intensified their concerns.
“America as a whole has become much less tolerant of Muslim populations,” says Eleanor Holdridge, director of Akhtar’s “The Who and the What.” “This is a wealthy American family he’s writing about. As he grapples with identity, it really hits at who we are.”
Akhtar’s bouncy springboard for “The Who and the What” was “The Taming of the Shrew.” The substantially Westernized female writer deals with her Pakistani-born father’s pressure to get married before her younger sister does. The shape is comic: The father uses an online dating service to try to broker a match for his daughter. But it’s biting, as Akhtar examines the role of women in Islam.
“He sets up the problems in a way that is charming and funny,” Holdridge says. “You like the people before you realize we’re going to be in middle of a huge dialectic.”
The 90-minute “Disgraced” focuses on the ambitious lawyer Amir, who seems to have rejected the religion in which he was raised yet is drawn into a controversy when he speaks about a local imam who has been imprisoned. Who is disgraced? The play makes that clear. Yet interpretations have surprised Akhtar, as the show has been seen by audiences across the country and internationally.
“There’s this thing of the ‘disgrace’ of the title as the disgrace of public discourse in our time,” Akhtar says. “I didn’t know that’s where we were headed. But it’s weird that that’s where we’ve ended up.”
For Akhtar, this widely applauded arrival as a writer has been a long time coming. His parents are both doctors who emigrated from Pakistan; he was born in New York raised in Wisconsin, a place and time where religious identity was less fraught than now. In high school he fell in love with serious literature by the likes of Dostoevsky and Proust. Jewish authors from Chaim Potok and Saul Bellow to Woody Allen and Philip Roth fascinated him, sometimes for their embattled positions within their faith.
“It’s a weird, paradoxical situation,” he says. “A Muslim kid growing up in Milwaukee, obsessed with Jewish writers.”
He studied theater at Brown but also began to get an education in finance, thanks to a bargain he made with his father. In exchange for paying his rent, his dad insisted that he read the Wall Street Journal every day.
“So I did,” Akhtar smiles. “Dutiful son.”
He began a habit of writing, but his paying jobs had more to do with directing, acting and teaching. For years, he taught with the theater experimentalist Andre Gregory, and he worked with the avant-garde figurehead Jerzy Grotowski in Italy. After film school at Columbia University, Akhtar co-wrote and starred in the 2005 movie “The War Within,” a thorny tale of a Pakistani student who is roughed up by U.S. officials in Paris and then goes to New York bent on a terrorist mission. But it wasn’t until he sold the novel “American Dervish” that he could devote himself to writing full time.
Now in demand, he is pivoting toward big projects digging at what he thinks is the root of much of the world’s discontents: money. “Capital” is an original series pilot he’s writing for HBO based in Wisconsin but set all over the world as the global economy continues to morph. His new play “Junk: The Golden Age of Debt” is a Shakespearean-size epic for 17 actors dealing with the Michael Milken junk bond scandals of the 1980s. He has another big play in mind that he might work on during an upcoming year-long residency with Arena.
“I don’t know what’s happening,” Akhtar says of the expanding scale of his projects. “And they’re increasingly political.”
Doug Hughes, who recently helmed the inside-the-Beltway drama “City of Conversation” at Arena, is directing “Junk” at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse for an already buzzed-about July debut. He calls the play a cross between “Henry IV, Part 1” and David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
“That’s a pretty hotsy-totsy comparison, I realize,” Hughes says. “But it’s a big bloody struggle. There are casualties.”
“He’s digging pretty deep into the joys and sorrows of capitalist society,” says La Jolla artistic director Christopher Ashley. “ ‘Junk’ is a really intentional effort to say, ‘Identity is not my only subject. I can paint on a very broad canvas.’ ”
Akhtar, who frets about America’s anti-intellectual bent (“Democracy is meaningless without education,” he says) while also making no bones about striving to be an entertainer, sees the economic thriller as a genre worth exploring. “When a Wal-Mart moves in, 82 cents of every dollar leaves the community. That’s the real problem,” Akhtar says. “That’s been the problem for 200 years. But we’re going to sit around and talk about identity politics? It’s a diversion from the real issue.”
That sounds like something Emily, the painter, says in “Disgraced”: “We’ve all gotten way too wrapped up in the optics. The way we talk about things. We’ve forgotten to look at things for what they really are.”
“It’s not like I am trying to be contrarian,” Akhtar says. “I am just trying to write to what I think is really happening.”
Disgraced through May 29 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets: $40-$110. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.
The Who and the What May 25-June 19 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Tickets: $30-$56. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.