‘Disgraced’ interrogates definitions of identity and Islam in America

October 30, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
Amir is a successful corporate lawyer living a version of the American Dream, who has turned his back on the Muslim faith of his parents. The Broadway play "Disgraced," by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar, tells the story of how Amir’s world and identity fall apart. Jeffrey Brown interviews Akhtar about his work and the deeper questions he’s exploring.

GWEN IFILL: Now: a prize-winning play about the impact faraway conflicts have on personal lives.

Jeffrey Brown has our report from our New York studio.

ACTOR: I’m sitting in nigh office. I’m red-lining a contract due at 6:00. Steven walks in.

JEFFREY BROWN: When we first meet Amir in the space “Disgraced,” he is living a contemporary version of the American dream, up-and-coming corporate lawyer, expensive apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and beautiful artist wife.

He’s a Pakistani-American who has largely turned his back on the religion of his parents, Islam. But he’s also living in post-9/11 America and understands and even plays with the realities of that.

At a dinner party, he explains to friend how he volunteers for security checks at airports.

ACTOR: I know they’re looking at me, so I figure why not make it easier for everyone involved?

ACTRESS: I have never heard of anybody doing that before.

ACTOR: On top of people being more and more afraid of folks who look like me, we end up being resented, too.

ACTRESS: Those agents are working hard not to discriminate, and then here’s this guy. He walks right up to them and calls them out on it.

ACTOR: Pure, unmitigated passive aggression.


JEFFREY BROWN: There’s plenty of humor in “Disgraced,” but quite a bit more pain, as Amir’s world and identity comes undone.

The writer of “Disgraced” is 43-year-old Ayad Akhtar, a Milwaukee native who grew up in a secular Muslim family.

ACTOR: I don’t expect you or your friends to understand what I was talking about.

JEFFREY BROWN: He’s explored various flash points of contemporary life as a novelist, actor, and screenwriter, as in the 2005 movie “The War Within” about a Pakistani student who after being abducted and interrogated by the CIA attempts an attack on New York.

Premiering two years ago, “Disgraced” earned Akhtar the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Just before opening night last week on Broadway, I asked him what he was after in writing the play.

AYAD AKHTAR, Playwright, “Disgraced”: There was a character who was speaking to me with this kind of relentless passion, Amir, the lead character in the play, who has this very particular point of view on Islam.

He’s Muslim birth — of birth and origin, but has sort of strongly moved away from it and is very critical of Islam. But I came to understand that what the play was really trying to get at was the way in which we secretly continue to hold on to our tribal identities, our identities of birth, of education, despite our — despite getting more enlightened.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s almost a suggestion that, whatever we do, our education, or our jobs, or our marriages, we can’t — we never get past this kind of tribal allegiances.

AYAD AKHTAR: It — I didn’t seem to be able to pull the play away from that conclusion. I tried.

But these characters continued to find meaning and find some kind of safety as the situation, the dramatic situation devolved, in those tribal identities.

JEFFREY BROWN: As the drama unfolds, Amir moves from a sharp critique of Islam to admitting feelings of sympathy to a world view he has rejected.

ACTOR: Are you telling me you never felt anything like that, an unexpected blush of…


ACTOR: No. No. I don’t feel anything like a blush.

ACTOR: When you hear about Israel throwing its military weight around?

ACTOR: I am critical of Israel. A lot of Jews are.

ACTOR: And when you hear about Ahmadinejad talk about wiping Israel into the Mediterranean, how do you feel did then?

ACTOR: Outraged, like everyone else.

ACTOR: Not everyone feels outraged. A lot of folks like hearing that.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much of this did have — reflect any of your own sense of Americanness, Islam, being a Muslim, sense of identity?


It’s a good question. I think it’s one I’m still grappling with and still working through in a series of works that “Disgraced” is one of. And I think there’s a long history of sort of post-colonial Muslim self-definition the last, I would say, 200 years, where defining oneself in opposition to the West or separate from the West has been an important part of what it means to call oneself Muslim.

I think that, obviously, in the past decade or so, there has been such tremendous geopolitical upheavals that there’s a way in which that’s being called into question. So…

JEFFREY BROWN: At a personal level?

AYAD AKHTAR: At a personal level, at a nation-state level.


AYAD AKHTAR: It’s being called into question. All of the sort of extraordinary conflicts that we see unfolding in the Middle East are part and parcel of what I’m talking about.

And so the work that I’m doing, “Disgraced” included, is about exploring the various contradictions that arise because of that history and those fealties.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of being a Muslim in America after 9/11?

AYAD AKHTAR: Well, in part being Muslim. Being American. What are the overlaps? What are the contradictions? Are those contradictions real? Are they historical? Are they passed simply from parent to child, or is it something much larger?

Is there an inherent conflict between Islam and the West?

JEFFREY BROWN: And have you figured this out, or is this what you’re doing in the work?

AYAD AKHTAR: I think to have an answer would be above my pay grade.


AYAD AKHTAR: I get away with — I get away with trying to see what the various perspectives yield in terms of human lives and the solutions that individuals come up with to these questions.

JEFFREY BROWN: I wonder just how you see theater, as a kind of provocation, you know, as something that makes us think a lot.


JEFFREY BROWN: This is a kind of provocative piece of writing.


And I think that, at its best, what the theater does is, it gathers us together. We, social herding animals, arrive together into a room, and we behold something that actually happens before us, not something mediated to us by a screen, but the presence of live performers, which hearkens back to a kind of experience of a ritual, and an experience of one mind, one body, a kind of communion that happens in the audience between audience and performers that allows us, reaches into us, where we can experience things more deeply than we can individually.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even if it’s provoking questions of real identity, am I a Muslim? Am I a Jew? Am I an American? Who am I?

AYAD AKHTAR: Well, those sound like some pretty good questions for our time. So I don’t mind doing that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the play is “Disgraced.”

Ayad Akhtar, thank you so much.

AYAD AKHTAR: Thank you, Jeffrey.