We are the new niggers.
A traverse stage can give the audience the impression of observing scenes in an aquarium. The species in this aquarium are surrounded, and cannot really escape. This was one of the first feelings I had when observing the initials movements of the characters in Disgraced, directed by Nadia Fall at London’s Bush Theatre. A random tweet pointed me to this production, which stages Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize 2013 winning play, and I do hope the run will be prolonged for the pleasure of many more Londoners. Indeed, the themes tackled by the play, involving ethnicity, the idea of belonging, religion, and highly influential New York professionals should not be ignored.
The story immerses us into the living room of a luxurious Madison Avenue apartment, in which handsome Amir (Hari Dhillon), a corporate lawyer raised in Pakistan and elegant Emily (amazing Kirsty Bushell – yes that is the right word), an up and coming American artist, share a comfortable, athletic and childless life filled with designer shirts and furniture. While Amir has long stubbornly rejected his Muslim origins and embraced his American lifestyle which to him can’t be combined with the latter, his wife’s main work embraces the beauty of ancient Islamic traditions. This apparent contradiction is, to me, the first genius of Akhtar, who emphasises how all marriages are so different, and how two loving individuals can absolutely share a life while bearing opposite beliefs regarding such a rich topic as religion.
It is when Jewish curator and producer of Emily’s next art show, Isaac and his African-American wife Jory come over for dinner that it is revealed that repressing one’s primary education can have very dangerous consequences. The wine is poured, the fennel salad recipe is revealed. The fact that these four individuals are in some ways minorities (aren’t we all?) makes the first exchanges about going through airport security, Amir’s mother’s contempt of Jewish people or interpretations of what the Qur’an expresses about women into a simple everyday conversation, interrupted by laughter and “pass the salt”s. Amir, for example, is used to walking directly towards security guards, as he is sure to be asked to be checked privately anyway.
Unfortunately, as the evening wears on, it is announced that Amir will not benefit from the promotion he was hoping for, and that Jory will receive it instead. Moreover, when he learns a further secret about his wife and the truth about his actual redundancy because of racial (religious?) preconceptions, something inside him clicks and his childhood’s hateful and violent education emerge.
This transition seemed quite rapid and it would have been interesting to observe a longer crescendo. That being said, Akhtar’s work truly impresses as it is so topical. The final scenes do not offer a proper answer to the question of how one should simultaneously assimilate and remain true to our upbringing, and that is because we are all looking for that answer right now. Bringing this question down to Amir’s level, if he loses everything from his American life, is he a lost man in a land which does not even fully acknowledge him?
Nadia Fall directs Disgraced with such precision and selected such a perfect cast that it is almost painful. It is rare to hear such silence amongst the audience, so few coughs, whilst at the same time noticing humms of acknowledgement and appreciation.
What I would enjoy seeing now are stories touching on similar themes within other social classes, and a response to Akhtar’s play in fifty years.