Even before the Pulitzer Prize for Drama had been announced, playwright Ayad Akhtar was excited. His debut play Disgraced, already a hit in Chicago and New York, was to be staged by London’s Bush theatre, a venue for which he “has always had a great deal of admiration. There was just this aura around it.”
Described by US entertainment magazine Variety as a “blistering social drama”, Disgraced follows Amir, a Muslim lawyer moving up the corporate ladder in New York. As he achieves long held ambitions he falls foul to betrayals both professional and personal.
When the New York native travelled across the Atlantic earlier in the year to meet his Bush theatre colleagues, he found time to talk to Official London Theatre about his award-winning play, tackling unfashionable and controversial issues, and his amazing year:
The inspiration for Disgraced came from a dinner party. It was 2006. Talk turned to Islam and I just experienced for the first time the way in which in a post-9/11 New York discussion had much larger implications in terms of the way people would relate to each other. Things that were said at dinner by everybody, but certainly by me, that made my friends see me differently. Those changes in their perception of me were things that were significant and permanent, not nearly as dramatic as they are in the play, but nevertheless gave me the idea that a discussion could lead to significant shifts in people’s relationships.
The play doesn’t pull any punches. Whatever perspective you have on the issue, I think there’s something in there for you to get upset about. Certainly if you’re a believing Muslim, I think that Amir’s very vitriolic self-loathing but also very intelligent critique of Islam is something some people will find offensive. But I was worried about that in New York and that’s not what happened. What ended up happening was people responded to the story as the story of a man, a tragedy basically. We’ll see.
I think a British audience will get this play more deeply than the American audience, just because I think the history of Indo-Pak identity and post-colonial Muslim identity and the Empire, all those things are significantly more embedded in the British psyche and the British experience. That hypothesis will shortly be tested.
I’ve been very fortunate with this play. I’ve encountered the right people at the right time. There have always been a couple of issues in the play that I haven’t been able to get my head around. I’ve had a couple of wonderful days working with Madani [Younis, Bush theatre Artistic Director] and he really has helped me think about some of those things in a new light. I’ve met people at every stage of the way in terms of dramaturgical guidance and help; it’s been a real blessing.
I’ll be here through rehearsals until opening. I’m actually really happy that they want me here for that whole period of time so that I can have that experience. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but if they told me we don’t want you around here, I would understand that too. Some directors feel that way.
I come from the film business and I was an actor for a long time, so I understand that for a play to work it’s not necessarily that the text needs to be honoured; the text is something that actors and a director have to bring to life. I think it’s important for a playwright to be responsive to things that are happening in the room.
When I was over here for the first time in college, I saw a production of Glengarry [Glen Ross] at the National Theatre. To this day it remains the best production of Glengarry I’ve ever seen. I’ve always felt that you guys are able to do American better than we can do British.
I feel like as an artist I’m responding to the world that I live in. Not in a sanctimonious way, not in a way that I pretend to have something to teach the audience or to have some conclusion for them to draw. There are certain types of artist that gravitate to those fault lines inside a culture or society and just live and breathe there. It appears my predilections are of that nature. Sometimes I wish they weren’t.
In order to have a career as an artist and an actor and to be able to grow, you need to have work that really speaks to you and that pushes you. I think that that’s the job of a writer, to come up with those kinds of roles for actors to be able to sink their teeth into.
It’s been an amazing year for me; I have struggled for a very long time. I still pinch myself and wonder why everything is going so well. I am grateful for it, because it means people are interested in what I’m doing and I’m going to be able to continue. That’s always been the only thing that really matters to me; can I keep doing it, can I keep getting better? I’m excited about that.