There are several moments in PlayMakers Repertory Company's suspenseful production of Disgraced where we have no idea what's going to happen next. The last one takes place in the final minute of the show. In his Upper West Side apartment, central character Amir (Rajesh Bose), a successful Arab-American lawyer, rips the brown paper wrapper from a portrait of himself, painted by his wife, Emily (Nicole Gabriella Scipione).
By then, other characters in the play have described the painting as an homage to Velázquez's famous "Portrait of Juan de Pareja," the slave—and brilliant artist—whom Velázquez ultimately freed. But given all that has transpired in Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2012 drama, we're still bracing ourselves for some variation on the end of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.
As Amir turns the canvas around and gazes on it for the first time, the image is finally revealed to the audience. It's a picture of a middle-aged man, with dark skin, wearing a business suit. He looks off to the left, not making eye contact with the viewer. His expression is enigmatic, but it clearly does not suggest happiness, peace or contentment. Instead, it conveys guardedness, suspicion, concern and fear.
The question comes up repeatedly in Akhtar's script: Which representations of Islam are appropriate and inappropriate, and who is permitted to make them? Thus, two weeks after Black Ops Theatre Company and Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern's production of Young Jean Lee's The Shipment caused some uproar, regional audiences encounter another controversial drama about conflicting representations of an ethnic group. But where Lee contented herself with scathing burlesques of historically reductive depictions of black people in popular entertainment, Akhtar goes deeper in his consideration of Islam as experienced from within and seen from without.
Amir's arguments with Emily, who is exploring Islamic art in her own paintings, litigate these issues, as do Emily's conversations with Isaac (Benjamin Curtis), an influential curator at the Whitney Museum who could launch her career, throughout a dinner party conversation that audience members in Paul Green Theatre won't soon forget.
The stakes these issues raise far exceed a developing artist's potential first major exhibition. As Akhtar's characters note, Islam is much more than an aesthetic that gave the Western world visual perspective in painting. When Emily and Isaac praise the beauty and wisdom they find in the Islamic tradition, Amir rejoins, "But the thing is, it's not just beauty and wisdom." Completely rejecting Islam on the basis of his experiences as a child in Pakistan and the geopolitical extremism of today, Amir terms the Koran "like one very long hate-mail letter to humanity."
As the liquor flows during a tony meal with Emily, Isaac and his wife, Jory (Rasool Jahan)—a colleague at the law firm where Amir works—Amir grows increasingly belligerent and impatient with the others' views. As he does, the questions grow more pointed and useful.
Can we pick and choose the parts we admire of an entity that is simultaneously a religious, cultural and political force while refusing to acknowledge other elements that make us uncomfortable? Is it naïve of us to embrace the idealism in Islam—or Christianity or American civil society, for that matter—but not their respective dark sides, including xenophobia and intolerance?
Or is such an impulse a necessary corrective, a civilizing countermeasure against the extremists who would only define these and other world traditions in their most militant and disastrous terms?
These questions alone would fund a rewarding evening of theater. But Akhtar increases the stakes in considering the areas of American society that those of Arab heritage are and aren't permitted to occupy.
In contemplating Emily's painting of her husband, Isaac notes that Amir is "adorned in the splendors of the world you're now so clearly a part of ... and yet, the question remains ... of your place." The room goes pin-drop silent. The South has long known that term as an expression of American bigotry; the dominant culture in the 1960s felt that racial harmony depended upon minorities knowing and not getting above "their place."
Isaac quickly qualifies his observation: He means where some viewers, though certainly not he himself, would place Emily's subject in society. But a tripwire has been sprung in this alcohol-fueled conversation, and things soon get a lot more frank.
Under Shishir Kurup's deft direction, a talented quintet of actors develop Akhtar's meditations as we contemplate the ultimately tragic arc of Disgraced. At the dinner party, Scipione is a beacon, radiating Emily's concern and fears as she watches Amir become increasingly consumed by his own absolutist stands. Jahan is typically crisp in her work as Jory, and Samip Raval ably tracks the changes in Amir's nephew, Abe, as he faces his own challenges in American culture.
As Amir, Bose depicts the dilemma of a man who is both insider and outsider in his relationships, career and country. For people of Islamic heritage in the United States, can that identity, that representation, ever change? Unfortunately, we're still deciding.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Identity crisis