(l to r) Joe Isenberg, Nehal Joshi, Ivy Vahanian and Felicia Curry by C. Stanley Photography.
Assimilation. The Cherokees tried, or so a glance at American history tells us. Finally conquered by the Europeans, they tried t acculturate themselves, to do what the white man said would render them social equals in the emerging 18th century America: “Be like us. Speak like us. Adopt our ways.” And so they did. They became farmers and planted cotton. They wore the white man’s clothes. They built houses like theirs. They even became Christians. And what did it get them? The Trail of Tears: slaughter, starvation, and near annihilation at the hands of that hot blooded redhead from Tennessee, Andrew Jackson, whose visage on the $20 bill will soon be replaced by the American Moses, Harriet Tubman.
Playwright Ayad Akhtar’s brilliant, astonishing Pulitzer-Prize winning play, “Disgraced,” is breathtakingly realized. Impeccably acted, incisively directly, gorgeously designed, and stunningly powerful. Wisdom abounds.
In the play American-educated Amir is an erudite, Islam-rejecting corporate lawyer. The son of parents born in what became Pakistan after partition, he married Emily, a gentile, redheaded American artist. They live in a spectacular Upper East Side apartment, with a magical view the Manhattan skyline. Yet, in playwright Akhtar’s ferocious plunge into the contradictions of the American Dream, Amir must face his own trail of tears; and the bitter message is the same: Abandon one’s tribe at one’s peril. Trust power at one’s own risk.
Impeccably acted, incisively directly, gorgeously designed, and stunningly powerful. Wisdom abounds.
For those on the outside, supremacist belief systems still take no prisoners. For the Cherokees, it was “Manifest Destiny,” that doctrine that American expansion across the continent was both justified and inevitable. And indeed, throughout history the powerful have rationalized their domination by their own self-serving logic: divine right of kings, white supremacy, Aryanism, caste systems, philosophies bestowing divine supremacy of one group over others. Like American Exceptionalism, the belief that the United States is inherently unique and superior among nations, and that it alone is charged with transforming the world.
In “Disgraced,” Amir eloquently articulates his long disillusionment with the Muslim faith of his upbringing. Nehal Joshi brings a beautifully nuanced, fiercely intelligent empathy to the role. His Amir is multi-sighted like an M.C. Esher tessellation: he sees himself both as America sees him and his culture—suspicious, hostile, dishonorable—and as he needs to be seen—sophisticated, loyal, non-violent. Joshi’s Amir bristles with all those contradictions.
Conversely, his abstract artist wife Emily–lyrically played by Ivy Vahanian—has embraced her own understanding of Islam. Ironically, her accelerating artistic career is fueled by her admiration for and emulation of sophisticated & ancient Islamic aesthetic motifs. Vahanian gives Emily an impassioned earnestness and a graceful ruthlessness; her Emily is talented, gracious, and strategic and, in a microcosm of Manifest Destiny, she seamlessly takes her place at New York’s artistic table.
Like their sleek, spacious apartment rising phoenix-like above the hustle of the city, Amir and Emily are beautiful and cultured and successful, the very picture of contemporary sophistication.
As the play opens, Emily is painting a portrait of her husband as a modern adaptation of Velasquez’s famous portrait of his enslaved African assistant, Juan de Pareja. The layers of paradox abound; Amir poses, his Westernized secularism firmly in the grip of irony.
Amir’s’ young nephew suddenly arrives; his birth name is Hussein but he’s taken to calling himself Abe, irony aside. Passionately played by Samip Ravel, Abe beseeches his uncle Amir—a one-time public defender–to advise his mosque’s recently arrested imam for taking donations the authorities assume must be terrorist-bound. Raval gives Abe an authority that belies his youth and a charm that lends his character emotional gravitas.
Still, Abe’s Uncle Amir at first refuses to help; as the most culturally different attorney at his Jewish law firm, Amir knows only too well the professional risk of any negative association with a politically imaged Islamic community. But his wife Emily—convinced that her husband’s colleagues will see the purity of Amir’s intentions–convinces him. Sure enough, Amir’s name and the name of his law firm are characterized as advocates for the quickly vilified imam in a New York Times article. Amir, rightly, is horrified at the consequences to come.
Into this political conundrum comes Isaac, curator and kingmaker in the New York art scene. He wants to see Emily’s recent work for possible inclusion in a major show. Emily’s fervent embrace of Islamic influences and her utter lack of irony–as well as her beauty and the mysticism of her work–delight him. Joe Isenberg brings an easy assurance and dazzling art-speak to Isaac; his Isaac has made the fractious New York art world his own, and has transcended his own outsider status as a native Midwesterner.
Later, Isaac and his corporate lawyer wife Jory—a colleague at Amir’s same law firm—arrive for a celebratory dinner, to toast Emily’s inclusion in the show. Felicia Curry gives the accomplished Jory the quickness of a brilliant legal mind, coupled with spot-on, comic timing. Curry brings down the house time and again with her deadpan rebuttals to her husband Isaac’s feeble remarks.
As the liquor flows, the levity and airy chatter of these 1 percenters evaporate, and playwright Akhtar and Director Timothy Douglas expertly peel back their façades. The subtext, the hidden logic, the unspoken resentments and distrusts of these four people–a Muslim, a Jew, an African-American, & a Caucasian–ricochet around the stage like ionized electrons. They are each freighted with hostilities and presumptions and misunderstandings too deeply embedded to shed and too agitated to hide anymore. In an anguished moment of confession Amir speaks about the visceral pride he, even as a disaffected Muslim, feels when his dis-empowered tribe revolts, even violently, against a dominating force. In one of the play’s most electrifying moments—with the silhouette of the Ground Zero monument shining through the window—Amir is pressed by their dinner guests to speak about his reaction to 9-11. An audible gasp goes up from the house, and it is clear that this is no ordinary American play.
Betrayals surface, dark secrets emerge, unholy alliances are revealed, relationships implode, and soon Amir emerges as the shattered embodiment of the play’s title: Disgraced.
And when his nephew Abe reappears at the play’s end needing his uncle’s legal help himself to withstand the FBI’s pressure to become an informant lest he lose his visa, the young man spits out the most passionate, coherent entreaty for a marginalized people’s reclamation of their world that this playgoer had ever seen.
The entire production of this magnificent play soars. Direction by Timothy Douglas rivets the audience throughout. Set Design by Tony Cicek captivates. Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James perfectly captures the play’s uber chic world. The Lightning Design by Michael Gilliam is positively magical.
Advisory: Brief profanity, adult themes. Appropriate for ages 13 and above.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
In The Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St., SW, Washington, DC 20024, through May 29, 2016.
Tickets: www.arenastage.org or 202-488-3300.