Skip to main content

Ayad Akhtar says he didn’t expect the degradation of speech ‘is something that the audience would be dealing with in their daily life.’Nina Subin

Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced is the most-produced play in North America this season – and also one of the most controversial.

Amir Kapoor – a rising corporate lawyer who has distanced himself from his Muslim upbringing – runs into trouble after reluctantly getting involved in the case of a local imam accused of terrorism-related offences. His professional and personal problems come to a head at a dinner party at his Upper East Side apartment, when a heated argument about Islam and America erupts between him, his white artist wife, an African-American colleague and a Jewish art dealer.

The snappy one-act drama won Akhtar the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013, but Disgraced has also drawn criticism in some quarters for reinforcing Muslim stereotypes. Toronto audiences get to see for themselves when Hope and Hell Theatre Company's production opens as part of the Off-Mirvish season on April 3.

The Globe and Mail spoke to Akhtar – a Pakistani-American writer whose work includes the 2012 novel American Dervish – over the phone from New York.

Amir, your main character, the apostate who has a lot of anger toward Islam, reminded me of some prominent Canadians like the "Muslim refusenik" Irshad Manji and the author and broadcaster Tarek Fatah. Did you have a particular model in mind?

No, I didn't. I think that Amir is somebody who is pre-emptively trying to make himself in the eyes of the American majority – and his rejection of Islam is operating as a kind of card-carrying membership of being Western. The tragedy, in a way, of the play is that it doesn't matter what his thoughts on Islam are; in a post-9/11 world, those nuances are lost.

Now your play is getting a lot of productions outside the United States. Is there a difference in the response internationally?

I think it's the most-produced play in Germany this year. There's been a lot of reviews, articles, op-ed pieces. I think that there's robust debate/paranoia going on in Europe right now because of the refugee situation and the play seems to illuminate or obfuscate issues that they're dealing with. But, even in this country, it doesn't seem like there's any consistent reaction.

It's weird to look back at 2012, when this play premiered, as being a less extreme political climate in the United States for Muslims. Are you sensing that things are becoming more intense with the rise of Donald Trump?

Well, not just for Muslims, for anybody. When I wrote the play in 2011, I had no expectations that the degradation of public speech that happens in the play is something that the audience would be dealing with in their daily life. Today, you turn on the television or you walk into the store and people are talking to each other the way that they do in the play. I think the play, in a way, has been prescient about developments in American political life and American cultural life that have nothing to do with Islam, but that are perhaps catalyzed by certain shifts and fissures.

Many Muslim audience members have found Disgraced offensive. Has that been difficult to deal with?

It's always hard for a writer. I don't think Philip Roth enjoyed it when it happened to him. I don't think Frank McCourt enjoyed it when it happened to him … Not to compare myself to those writers – just to underscore that writers being rejected or criticized by the community they're writing about is not new. But it doesn't make it any less painful.

On the other hand, Disgraced is the most-performed play in United States. If not Muslim actors, then, brown-skinned male actors must certainly be thanking you?

That's the irony. It is putting a lot of Muslim actors to work. And they will often say: "We're not sure if we should be doing this play, but we want to because we never get to play a role this rich." Again, it's the paradox of representation. When you're not used to be represented, you can have some confusion about it.

In your 2012 novel American Dervish, you include this quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Is that a philosophy that inspires your playwriting as well?

It inspires all my artistic production. The expansiveness that results from the holding of opposites is to me, a signature experience of art.

That novel is about a Pakistani-American born in the Midwest, like you. Do people tend to read your work as autobiography?

They do – and it's interesting, because so many of the narrators and major characters of my work contradict each other. I'm trying to give voice and body to points of views and experiences and characters and the narratives that I have experienced.

Let's backtrack for a moment, to the reaction from the Muslim community –

Which isn't univocal. There have been differing reactions. There's also been some vociferous defence of it as well.

I was wondering how it's affected your personal relationships with family and friends, who happen to be Muslim.

The thing that I often hear is, Muslims will pull me aside and say: "We understand what you're doing, but they're not going to understand." The issue in many ways is not the play, but how it's going to be seen by white people. You know, it's the thinking of the old saying: Is it good for the Jews, or bad for the Jews? My parents totally understand where the play is coming from. Again, my feeling is many Muslims just don't like that it's being shared in a culture where the stakes are so high. I get that, too. I have to say I do understand the concerns.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Disgraced runs April 3-17 at the Panasonic Theatre ( Hope and Hell's production plays the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton in January, 2017.