Disgraced, written by novelist and screenwriter, Ayad Akhtar, tells the story of Amir Kapoor, a corporate lawyer, living the dream in New York City. He’s happy, in love and on the verge of scoring a huge promotion. But it’s all come at a considerable cost, as Kapoor has had to distance himself from his Islamic culture and faith to arrive at that point.
One evening, Kapoor and his wife, Emily, host an intimate dinner party, and it’s not long before the civilised veneer cracks and tensions surface.
Disgraced, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013 and has become a huge hit across America, recently had its Australian premiere season at the Sydney Theatre Company. Following the sell-out success of that season, the STC production is embarking upon a short tour that takes in Wollongong, Parramatta and Canberra. On Thursday, its limited Parramatta season begins at Riverside Theatres.
Reprising the role of Kapoor on the tour is Sachin Joab, who’ll be joined on stage by the full STC cast, comprising Paula Arundell, Glenn Hazeldine, Shiv Palekar and Geraldine Hakewill. STC resident director, Sarah Goodes, has taken on directorial duties.
Speaking to Theatre People, Joab recalls first becoming aware of Disgraced early in 2015, when he was sent the script by his agent.
“That was one of the very few theatre scripts that I read from start to finish without stopping,” he says.
“It struck a chord with me for different reasons. One is because the writing is so tight.”
Joab also felt there were many aspects of Kapoor to which he could relate.
“He’s a born and raised American from a Pakistani background. He was raised by a devout religious mum, who practised Islam and passed it on to him. I was born and raised in Australia to Indian parents. My mum was very religious… She was Catholic and she was very devout. She instilled those Christian beliefs in me from a young age.
“Amir turned away from Islam at a young age because of an incident with his mum. I didn’t turn away, as such, from Catholicism as a result of an incident with my mum, but more along the lines of… trying to figure out things for myself. But the parallel that I found is that we both… turned away from the religions that were instilled in us from a young age.”
Joab also raises Kapoor’s struggle with his identity.
“Amir is constantly doing anything and everything he can to try and fit into American society [and], in particular, in New York society,” Joab says.
“He [does] everything from changing his name from ‘Amir Abdullah’ to ‘Amir Kapoor’, he drinks alcohol… he eats Pork…
“I’ve always tried to integrate into Australian society, doing anything and everything I could, even things that I had no interest in, [such as] taking an interest in AFL football.
“That’s just one small example. There were so many things that I did to fit in.”
Despite having graduated from Melbourne’s National Theatre back in 2007, Disgraced represents Joab’s debut on the professional theatre stage.
“I graduated from drama school… and I’d never done theatre after that, not because I didn’t want to, but because it was very rare for an Australian theatre script to include Aussies of Indian or Vietnamese or Middle Eastern background,” he says.
“There was nothing professional out there for me, so I was basically just doing whatever screen work I could… but even in the screen industry, there was such a limited amount of work for people of my ethnicity.”
Joab then travelled to Los Angeles. He says his time there ultimately lasted about two years, and saw him involved in a number of projects.
“I got work in two feature films [and] a television show. I got an agent and a manager in Hollywood very quickly. So it was a completely opposite experience to what I’d experienced my entire life in Australia, trying to gain acting work.”
So, how was it that Joab came to be in the mix for the role of Kapoor in STC’s Disgraced?
Joab says that after acquiring the rights for Disgraced, the STC intended to audition for the role of Amir internationally. But he says that Rachael Azzopardi, the STC’s Director of Programming and Artistic Operations, had seen him playing the role of a lawyer on TV series Neighbours, and advised her STC colleagues that he was of Indian background and had been acting for some time.
“But from what I understand, the STC wasn’t overly keen to hire an actor with no professional stage experience,” he adds. “She pushed for them to at least audition me.”
Joab was given that chance to audition when he returned to Australia to complete filming for Harvey Weinstein’s yet-to-be-released film, Lion, starring Nicole Kidman.
“I auditioned in front of Andrew Upton, former artistic director, and director, Sarah Goodes, and they both really liked me and they liked the audition, and so they offered me the role.”
The premiere season at the STC’s Wharf 1 theatre began on April 16 and concluded just recently on June 4. Joab tells Theatre People about the strong and varied responses he’s received from audience members, including members of the local community from Bangladeshi, Indian and Asian backgrounds.
“They’ve told me that they’ve never come to the theatre. They only came because there was a lead actor in it from a South Asian background, because they’ve never seen that before. There are so many audience members coming just based on that.
“Others are coming because they’ve heard Disgraced is a Pulitzer Prize-winner. I’ve [also] had elderly Caucasian Aussies come up to me and say they loved the play [and] they think every Australian should see it… There are all these really interesting conversations that I’m having with a lot of the audience members.”
But Joab is also well aware of those audience members who’ve been less receptive to Disgraced.
“I know that some audience members have walked out in the middle of the show. It’s a very sensitive play. It will touch a lot of nerves and there’ll be a lot of supporters, there’ll be people against it [and] there’ll be people who’ll just come and see if for entertainment value.”
While audience responses to Disgraced clearly differ significantly, what is it that Joab would like for people to take away from their experience seeing this piece?
“There are so many things I’d like people to take away from it, but one of the things would probably be just the idea of identity and integration,” he explains.
Joab says he’d like people to be aware of the difficulties individuals of various cultural or religious backgrounds often face in their efforts to integrate into a society like Australia.
“If they come up against a wall and feel that they can’t integrate, they’re obviously going to withdraw and return back to their own cultural communities. And when they do that, I think one of the results is that people often will say, ‘They’re not integrating’.
“I’d really like Australians to take on board that it’s not as easy as it appears to be, and I think that everyone does want to integrate, but they might have different roads or avenues as to how they do it. And if they can’t go by one way, they may very well withdraw, but I’d like it if they could either be encouraged or have suggestions [made] as to other avenues they can take to integrate.”
Dates: 16 to 18 June at 8pm, 18 June at 2pm (Audio Described)
Tickets: Adult $59, Conc $54, 30 & Under $45
Bookings: From the Box Office (02) 8839 3399 or www.riversideparramatta.com.au
Venue: Riverside Theatres – Corner of Church and Market Streets, Parramatta