Disgraced, the gut-busting world-premiere written by Ayad Akhtar currently playing at the American Theater Company, is theater at its boldest and bravest. Jutting out from the middle of this minefield, Director Kimberly Senior and her sharp, dynamic cast have given Chicago an inflammatory, belligerent masterpiece of a fight scene that leaves its audience just, well, stunned. As in the lights go down and the poor, unsuspecting, affluent Chicago audience does not move.
The basic story is familiar at first glance. Ambitious and ruthless New York lawyer Amir (played by Usman Ally) distances himself from Islam as he becomes more and more successful, of course bound for the eventual realization that he’s rejected a faith he truly believes in and the person whom he really is. But. From the beginning, his condemnation of his faith is far more forceful and merciless to stem from anything but profound, deep self-loathing. When it finally comes out why he hates himself so much, the apocalypse happens.
His life starts to fall apart when Amir’s Americanized nephew Hussein (now Abe) pleads for him to represent an Imam he believes is wrongfully imprisoned. His higher-ups at his (Jewish) law firm become suspicious of his intentions. He comes in conflict with his free-spirited wife Emily (Lee Stark), the love of his life, but who is as attracted to Islam as Amir is repulsed by it. The central scene is a dinner party that they throw for an associate at Amir’s law firm (Alana Arenas) and her husband Isaac (Benim Foster). So it’s a Muslim-American man, his white wife, his black co-worker, and his Jewish friend, all sitting around the most dangerous object on earth: the dinner table.
One of the best aspects of Akhtar's play (and brought out flawlessly by Senior’s staging) is how loaded every single topic is between these people, how the most benign thing can explode out of nowhere. Then they fight to a climax not often pulled off on stage, and then there’s this moment of suspension, where the characters realize all of the horrible things they just said and understand that the situation could not possibly get any worse. But it always gets worse anyway, and two lines later, they’re even more into it than they were before. It’s hard not to stay on the edge of your seat for this entire sequence, which has to last at least half an hour. When you’re done, you feel like you’ve been through a war.
Right after that, there’s this incredible transition. The audience needs a moment to catch its breath, and Senior gives it to you as stagehands enter to cover up the furniture in the apartment with white sheets, a gesture it’s hard not to read as funereal. The characters somehow killed the space with their poisonous thoughts and brutality.
Amir resonates because he is exactly what the American imagination has been terrified of from the moment the planes hit the two towers. He tries so hard to be normal, to fit in, to be successful, to be American. But hidden under all that is a terrible secret. He is unforgiveable. But what is truly memorable about Ally’s performance, and the production in general, is the conflict this creates—you cannot love him, and yet, you do. You can’t condemn him. Yet, you do.
This piece of theater presents deep, deep gouges in the corrupt human soul. And yet, remarkably, it doesn't make you feel bad about yourself, but invigorated. Excited. Alive.
This project is one to watch. It’s going places. See it now while it’s still so raw, before it gets starred up and packaged down.
Disgraced runs at the American Theater Company, at 1909 W Byron Street, now extended through March 11. Get tickets at atcweb.org, or call 773.409.4125. And brace yourself.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow