To what extent can a person renounce beliefs and values entrenched from an early age, and consolidated for many years thereafter? Despite the arrival of adulthood and inevitable exposure to other ways of thinking about and interpreting the world that may greatly appeal, can someone meaningfully eschew all of those ideas by which they were raised, and remove any trace that may characterise the way they live day to day?
It’s a fascinating question, worthy of examination on the stage, and one with obvious universal applicability. And it’s an interesting time to examine that question in Australia, as it continues on its path to transformation into a truly secular, yet multicultural, society. Do people who grew up largely in nominally Christian homes but now do not subscribe to any religion live in a manner that actually demonstrates a lack of adherence to those doctrines and tenets?
Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced is a piece that examines that issue – the ability to change. Of course, it’s communicated through a contemporary tale that puts Islamophobia specifically front and centre but, in fact, compels all of us to think about our evolved natures and adoption of more modern values, and how successfully these would hold up if we were tested, if they were genuinely scrutinised.
Last week, the Sydney Theatre Company’s Australian premiere production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play arrived at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres for a limited run, having just completed a series of performances at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre in Wollongong. This Australian premiere has been directed by the STC’s resident director, Sarah Goodes.
Disgraced introduces us to Amir Kapoor (Sachin Joab), an American-born man of Pakistani heritage who had a strict Muslim upbringing. He’s long since turned away from Islam and lives an affluent life on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. STC’s resident designer, Elizabeth Gadsby, has created a stunning, spacious and sleek New York City apartment, which succeeds not only in serving as a gorgeous setting for the play’s events, but in conveying the status Kapoor has achieved in the corporate world, in part, through his apostasy. He’s an accomplished lawyer working in mergers and acquisitions, and is on track to become the next partner of a sizeable Jewish law firm.
Kapoor’s wife is Emily (Geraldine Hakewill), a talented white American artist who’s particularly attracted to Islamic artwork and takes great inspiration from Islam in her pieces. Her interest in Islamic art evokes an interest in Islam more broadly, and Emily, rather naively, ‘corrects’ Kapoor at various times on his interpretation of teachings of the Quran.
Completing Disgraced’s cast is Isaac (Glenn Hazeldine), Emily’s art dealer of Jewish descent, Jory (Paula Arundell), Isaac’s African-American wife and Kapoor’s work colleague, and Abe (Shiv Palekar), Kapoor’s teenaged nephew who has changed his name from Hussein Malik, in his efforts to make his post-9/11 American existence easier.
It’s Abe who, in fact, plays a key role in causing the initial cracks in the veneer of Kapoor’s American dream. Abe enlists his uncle to visit a local imam who’s been jailed on charges of financing groups that support terrorists. Kapoor is completely against the idea, but receives significant encouragement to do so from Emily.
Kapoor’s eventual agreement to visit the imam is the trigger for a series of events that lead to his ultimate disgrace. There are repercussions at the law firm, and then there’s a cosy dinner party, which tests the strength and depth of the progressive values of not just Kapoor, but also those around him. Additionally, it’s an evening that will bear witness to the disintegration of some of Kapoor’s closest relationships.
Akhtar’s text is skilfully crafted. The dialogue is tight and sharp, and moves the narrative along at a brisk pace, making Disgraced’s uninterrupted 90-minute runtime an adequate period for events to build momentum. It certainly has audience members bristling and gasping at various moments (its characters verbalising political, religious and social thoughts rarely deemed appropriate for polite conversation), but there’s also clear restraint in the way in which Akhtar has composed those conversations. It’s intelligent writing that ensures key messages are conveyed with impact, but never leaves you feeling walloped by sanctimonious preaching.
For Disgraced’s first production on Australian shores, Goodes has assembled an excellent cast. Joab is outstanding as Kapoor. His characterisation is utterly convincing from start to finish, effectively selling the character that Kapoor wants the world to see – a successful American lawyer as disconnected from the Islamic faith as those around him. We then glimpse a darker figure in the play’s closing scenes – a man whose conflicts consume him and who becomes what he has rejected.
Hakewill is strong as Kapoor’s Caucasian wife. She has good chemistry with Joab and gives us an educated, well intentioned but naïve Emily. Hazeldine and Arundell are each superb in their crucial supporting roles, ensuring Disgraced has the flashes of lightness it needs to counter some of the almost unbearably uncomfortable moments of conversation around the dinner table.
Finally, Palekar deserves commendation for his portrayal of Kapoor’s nephew. It’s his character that brings into focus Kapoor’s nature, but it’s also his trajectory that highlights the marginalisation that can occur and that may result in radicalisation when someone is questioned, labelled and isolated. Palekar is hugely believable in his delivery of a growing man grappling with his own identity.
Akhtar could have led audiences slightly further down the path to provide an insight into precisely where the players land, but instead leaves us wondering. Does Kapoor renew his faith in Islam? Does Emily abandon her art, which is defined by her interest in Islam? Does Abe become truly radicalised? The strength of the text is in its ability to even have audience members caring enough to ask those questions.
Disgraced is a piece that makes its Australian audiences consider uncomfortable truths about what it means to be a Muslim in a post 9/11 world. It should resonate more widely with those who’ve felt a need to alter or conceal their identity (or a part of it) in order to progress and to be embraced by the society in which they live. It’s also a piece that will force audiences to think about their core values and how much they can compromise to live and let live.
The STC production of Disgraced plays the Canberra Theatre Centre from June 22 – 25. To purchase tickets, click here