Singapore Repertory Theatre's production of Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced looks at how open and hostile we've come to embrace religion — even our own
As a Muslim, it was pretty hard to stomach the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced. Not because it wasn't palatable (props go to Singapore Repertory Theatre for its casting and Nate Silver for his direction), but because believe it or not, religion makes you defensive. If you're born into it, it's what you've known your whole life — you live and breathe it. And God forbid if anyone shakes that up. Dares to question your faith. Gives you a trigger. Defenses are up, tongues are held, and as much as you try not to make it personal, it very much is.
Yet Ayad Akhtar's writing does just that: It triggers. It doesn't give you a critique of Islam, nor does it set out to defend it. Instead, it centres around the life of American-born lawyer Amir (Gaurav Kripalani), who, while Pakistani by heritage, has renounced his Muslim faith and changed his last name. When the play opens, we see him posing for his white American wife Emily (Jennifer Coombs), an artist painting his portrait after being triggered by a scene that involved a discriminatory waiter. Though the audience wasn't privy to that, the stage (beautifully designed by James Button) has been set: In this Upper East Side apartment that reeks of good taste (her love for Islamic art and his affinity for The Macallan and shirts with a ridiculous thread count), religion is something they don't talk about.
But the subject disguises itself as a freight train waiting to collide. This comes by way of characters Abe (Ghafir Akbar), Amir's passionate, opinionated nephew, his African American colleague Jory (LaNisa Frederick) and her Jewish art curator husband, Isaac (Daniel Jenkins). After a considerable amount of time has passed since we were first introduced to Amir and his wife, the two couples meet for dinner, and stereotypes are immediately played out: Emily and her penchant for Orientalism, Jory as the play's token comic relief and Isaac as a decision-maker.
As their dinner conversation that started around art and food takes a turbulent turn, Disgraced questions the validity of the whispers we hear from years of our respective cultural and religious conditioning. Looking at what's inside the hearts and minds of Muslims and Americans post 9/11, Ayad Akhtar (a Pakistani American himself) employs dialogue that touches into the very core of judgement — of ourselves and of others around us, whether or not we share the same roots. It questions the effect of globalisation, putting in view how believers struggle to determine which aspects of their religion to leave behind, and which to embrace. And if so, how much?
While set in America, Disgraced comes to Singapore in light of the recent President-Elect Donald Trump's appointment. Its timing couldn't be more impeccable. As triggers abound in the media we consume both here (in Facebook comments and minister statements, ahem) and internationally, Disgraced brings us face-to-face with the questions we're afraid to ask our friends and family — let alone ourselves. Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar runs till 4 December at KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT. For tickets, click here. Every production is followed by a post-show discussion.