— Kyra Zagorsky as Emily and Patrick Sabongui as Amir. Photo: David Cooper.
Last week, Surrey Conservative candidate Diane Watts sent out a mailing to voters in her riding warning them that ISIS will be coming to get them in their beds unless they put the Harper government back in power. In Canada we used to shake our heads at the post-9/11 paranoia Americans exhibited. Now we too are supposed to worry about Muslims under our beds.
Disgraced, the Pulitzer Prize winning drama by Pakistani-American playwright Ayad Akhtar that kicks off the Arts Club’s 2015/16 season, sends a grim warning about the dangers of identity politics generally and Islamophobia specifically in this new age of “us” and “them.” It’s serious and thought-provoking domestic realism (as the Pulitzer plays always seem to be), not scintillating exactly but important in ways that the theatre we see only too rarely is.
The play’s protagonist, American-born Amir Kapoor (Patrick Sabongui), is an aggressive corporate lawyer whose expansive Manhattan apartment, beautifully rendered by designer Ted Roberts, shows us just how well he’s doing. In fact he’s about to be made a partner in his firm: Leibowitz, Bernstein, Harris. His lovely blonde wife Emily (Kyra Zagorsky) is a painter whose renderings of neo-Islamic designs are about to get her a major gallery show. Amir is living the American dream.
When his nephew Abe (Conor Wylie) asks Amir for help defending Abe’s imam, who is in prison under the Patriot Act, accused of collecting money for Hamas, Amir says no. He has left Islam, become—as he calls himself—an apostate. In fact he has come to loathe Islam. The Koran, he says, is “like a very long hate-mail letter to humanity.” It turns out Amir has even changed his name and his social security number, gotten a new passport, and done everything he could to erase his Pakistani family roots.
But when Abe’s and Emily’s appeals for Amir to help finally convince him to appear alongside the imam in prison, Amir’s life starts a rapid downhill slide. It climaxes in a terrific scene of high drama at a dinner party Emily throws for Isaac (Robert Moloney), the Jewish gallery owner who is going to display her work, and his African-American wife, Jory (Marci T. House), Amir’s colleague at the law firm. Amir has too much to drink and ends up in a vicious argument with Isaac about Islam and Israel. More nastiness ensues and things occur which it would be wrong for me to reveal. Suffice to say that all does not end well.
At 80 minutes with no intermission, the production makes Amir’s reversal of fortune feel stunningly quick. Janet Wright’s straightforward direction keeps the melodrama to a minimum—despite a problematic plot point that threatens to turn the play’s ending away from its politics—and the clash of ideas is given lots of room to develop. All five performances are very, very good, capturing the complex greys in what is so often depicted as stark, simplistic black or white.
Does Amir get what he deserves? Who is to blame for the way things develop? Do ethnic, racial, national or religious labels define us whether we like it or not? Does Canadian multiculturalism inoculate us against the kinds of intercultural binds in which many hyphenated Americans find themselves? The play raises multiple questions like this. And it should warn us to beware of any politician who tries to bait us with fear of the Other.