January 19, 2020

‘Disgraced’ takes searing look at religion and identity

Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Disgraced,” opening at the Mark Taper Forum on June 19, offers a provocative meditation on contemporary Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, as well as faith and identity in the post-9/11 world.

Amir (Hari Dhillon) is a Pakistani American, a wealthy attorney who has vehemently rejected his Muslim upbringing and declares himself to be an apostate. The Quran, he insists, is a hate letter to all of humanity. Yet he chafes against the Islamophobia he has encountered at restaurants and at the airport. And when pressed by a Jewish friend, he admits to feeling some pride about the radical Muslim terrorists who carried out the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Amir’s contradictory feelings come to a head at a dinner party hosted by his wife, Emily, a white American artist who adores Islamic art. The guests include Isaac, a liberal Jewish art curator who does not support what he perceives as Israel’s oppressive policies toward the Palestinians, and Isaac’s wife, Jory, an ambitious African-American lawyer at Amir’s firm.

The subtext is that Amir reluctantly agreed to participate in defending a local imam accused of terrorist affiliations. Even though Amir did not act as the imam’s official counsel, Amir’s Jewish boss, a firm supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was apparently offended and will not promote Amir to partner.

At the dinner party, Amir’s resentment and tribalist feelings ultimately emerge, as the play explores how deep one’s roots can go even as a person tries to reject them.

As Amir tells Jory, who has been promoted instead of him, “You’re not the n—-r; I’m the n—-r.”  

Kimberly Senior, 43, daughter of a Syrian Jew, has directed all productions of “Disgraced,” from Chicago to Broadway and now at the Taper. During an interview in a Taper rehearsal room, the petite, passionate Senior said she was “shocked” when she first read the play. “There were times when I put it aside and wondered, ‘Are you allowed to say these things onstage? Can a Muslim character tell a Jewish character, ‘That’s why we call you animals’? ”

Senior was especially startled by one scene, in which Amir recalls spitting on a Jewish girl he had once liked as a boy, spurred by his parents’ anti-Semitism.  

But, Senior came to believe, “the play makes no apologies for anything, and it’s our job to put these sorts of tragedies onstage. That’s what ancient Greek theater was. The authors put these horrible things out there that [brought out] pity and fear in the audience.”

When Amir eventually brings up his affinity for the Sept. 11 terrorists, it’s not just out of the blue. 

“It’s the point he’s been making all night long,” Senior said. “He’s like: What’s so crazy is, I’ve rejected Islam; I’ve run away from it … and even still, this is how deep this s— runs.  After everything, I still feel this way.”

Senior recalled watching a recent televised Donald Trump speech, as tears streamed down her face. 

“It reminded me of a Hitler rally,” she said. “No one was being moved by the content; they were moved by his presentation and his rhetoric, which was horrifying. It reminded me of this play. We must sit and listen to what the other side is saying. I cannot just walk around in my liberal fantasy. I have to know the enemy and understand his power.”

Senior said she was also drawn to the play because her father reminds her of Amir. Raised in a traditional Syrian-Jewish household, her father rejected the strictures of Orthodoxy, assimilated and married a Reform Ashkenazi woman, to his parents’ initial dismay.

Senior grew up attending a Reform synagogue near her childhood home in Short Hills, N.J., where she felt herself to be an outsider among her more observant relatives. They would ridicule her at family seders by disdainfully declaring that she would be able to recite the Four Questions only in English. 

“I remember having an argument with my grandfather when I was 13,” Senior said. “It was, ‘I just don’t understand how your religion and your God would prize following these [Jewish] rules over loving and embracing your grandchild. I don’t understand you not being able to see me as a person of worth and merit.’ ”

Senior did not find spiritual satisfaction, either, among what she called the “high holiday” Jews at her childhood temple. “I did feel alienated from Judaism,” she said. 

The change came after she had children, now 10 and 8, and decided to join a synagogue where they could learn about Judaism. 

“I found a wonderful Conservative temple led by a female rabbi, whom I found engaging and inspiring and with whom I had wonderful conversations,” she said. “Through that, I started directing and exploring more work that dealt with Judaism: Matthew Lopez’s ‘The Whipping Man,’ which is about Jews in the Civil War, ‘My Name Is Asher Lev’ and ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’ ”

Senior studied theater at Connecticut College and, after graduation, moved to Chicago to take part in an internship at the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre. Her earliest directing efforts were plays produced in storefronts and basements. She went on to direct more than 100 productions, including Amy Herzog’s “After the Revolution” and John Lowell’s “The Letters.”

It was the artistic director at Chicago’s American Theater Company who suggested Senior work with Akhtar on “Disgraced,” his then-emerging drama, in 2011.

“It was the first time I ever felt that I had to do this play,” she recalled. “It felt to me that it captured an American moment. I thought, ‘This is what my world looks like.’ ”

Senior was drawn, as well, to the myriad questions posed by the piece: “What do we inherit?” she said by way of example. “What are we able to distance ourselves from?  What is in our bones that we cannot ultimately avoid? And must we remain tribal to protect our dignity and our agency?”

Senior worked side by side with Akhtar for years to help develop the piece. 

“The challenge in directing it is to make sure that each character is able to pursue his or her agenda in the moment,” she said. “And yet, it often should feel that the play is tumbling at a rate that is beyond our control. The play is unrelenting by design, and there should be no rest for the audience or the characters onstage.”

Some Muslims have already been critical of the play. An Islamic scholar sent Akhtar a 30-page missive denouncing the piece, Senior said. And the director has fielded questions about why a white Jewish woman has the right to direct a piece about Islam. Her response is that anyone can direct anything. “I don’t feel that only Jews should direct ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ ” she said. 

So, was Senior concerned that the piece might incite the already serious problem of Islamophobia in this country? 

“It’s already here,” she insisted. “That’s what the play is calling us all out on. We must confront it. We don’t live in a post-race world.”

Previews of “Disgraced” will run this week and the play will continue through July 17. For tickets and information, visit www.centertheatregroup.org.