Melbourne Theatre Company’s next offering is the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Disgraced, by novelist and screenwriter Ayad Akhtar. The play is centred on socio-political themes such as Islamophobia and the self-identity of Muslim-American citizens and couldn’t come at a more apt time as it is a story very much resonating within our own communities at the moment. For actor, Zindzi Okenyo, the question of identity is very much a focal point of Akhtar’s work as well. The play is, in fact, described as a “combustible powder keg of identity politics.”
“Disgraced deals with themes of race, religion and class however I believe at its core it’s about identity. It’s a relevant story because each and every one of us has an identity and it’s the forming of that identity that is a very complex and human journey, ” says Okenyo. “This play reflects back on the audience many different sides of an argument, all compelling. Although set in New York City, I believe Australian audiences will benefit from hearing the voices in this play. We are such a multicultural country with a long way to go in terms of unpacking and identifying what it is to be Australian and the text brings these issues into the light.”
Akhtar is a first generation Pakistani-American born in New York City and raised in Milwaukee. His work has been lauded for its truthful narrative and convincing characters as well as his no bolds barred writing style. “The writing is so succinct, ” says Okenyo. ” The characters are so clearly and beautifully drawn it was very clear to me I wanted to be part of this play. The diversity of the characters’ backgrounds allows the arguments within the text to be fully drawn out and everyone makes intelligent, articulate observations along the way, making it a layered read. Every page packs a punch.”
Okenyo plays Jory, an African American woman who works as a top corporate lawyer in NYC. She is forthright and commanding and does not mince words. She comes into the story when her and her Jewish curator husband come to dinner at her work colleague Amir’s house in celebration of Amir’s wife’s art show being put on at The Whitney. All the characters have back stories that are revealed over the course of the night and not everyone is in harmony as things are revealed. Jory is somewhat of an observer but when it comes time to take the floor she has no qualms in speaking the truth. “I admire her sense of duty and honesty, she is measured and calm,” says Okenyo of her character.
Disgraced marks Okenyo’s Melbourne Theatre Company debut having appeared on stage for Sydney Theatre Company, Belvoir, Ensemble Theatre, Darlinghurst Theatre Company, State Theatre Company of South Australia, Theatre Ink and Griffin. Her TV credits are wide and varied from Wonderland to play School which she describes as a truly wonderful job.
Talking about Play School celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year, Okenyo acknowledges that it really made her reflect on how iconic and vital the show has been for young and old people who grew up in Australia. “It has a very specific way of speaking to the child/audience without being condescending something I’ve always admired. I’ve been working on the show for about four years now and it’s still as joyful as ever, I hope it goes on for another 50!”
Disgraced is a brilliant, complex and moving drama that depicts a successful corporate lawyer painfully forced to consider why he has for so long camouflaged his Pakistani Muslim heritage. Says Okenyo: ” Come in with an open heart and mind and see how the play speaks to you. It is, after all, about human experience.”
August 19 – October 1