Setting a play within the confines of an intimate dinner party is an immediate, unmistakable signal to an audience that in addition to appetizers, entrees and desserts, heaping helpings of tension, contretemps and fraught revelations are sure to be served. Disgraced, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Ayad Akhtar being performed at Philadelphia Theatre Company until Nov. 8, is a worthy addition to this canon.
On the Menu at This Dinner Party: Ecumenical Discord, Served With a Side of Persecution
The writing style of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance is evoked in Disgraced, said Philadelphia Theater Company executive producing director Sara Garonzik, calling him “the granddaddy of the explosive dinner party.”
Akhtar’s work, which tackles the themes of religious persecutions and racism, follows Amir Kapoor, a Muslim-American lawyer, and his wife Emily, an artist inspired by Islamic themes. They host a dinner party where conversations go awry and take an argumentative — and religious — turn between a Muslim, a Jew, an African-American and a WASP.
Garonzik was blown away by the story’s depth and the vibrancy of the characters when she first saw Disgraced in 2012 at Lincoln Center. She wanted the company to produce it, but waited until it closed on Broadway to open it here.
“It is the most produced play in America today,” Garonzik added. “So you know there’s something really extraordinary going on.”
Perhaps the most extraordinary part of what is going on in the play is Akhtar’s deft touch with both managing and fomenting what lies beneath our exteriors of religious tolerance. “It’s been bubbling on the surface for so long in our society,” said Ben Graney, the actor who plays the Jewish character Isaac. He says the play’s thrust can be boiled down to a single, simple question: “What happens when it explodes?”
Graney’s character is a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, who identifies as culturally Jewish; he doesn’t practice Judaism religiously or keep kosher, a distinction Graney says he can relate to.
Although the play mainly focuses on the Muslim-American experience, Graney said other religions are relatable to the conversation and to the audience because so many faiths have experienced different types of persecution throughout history for different reasons and causes.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding between the two religions and a lot of assumptions that happen that are an impediment to things getting better,” he said of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in general.
Graney added that this plays into another major theme of Disgraced: the fear associated with Islamophobia and anti-Semitism by people who do not understand the religions.
“I feel like that fear is the easy way out into figuring out who those groups of people are,” he said, explaining that the play “makes people confront if they have any prejudices and what they are and why they have them.”
Aside from the themes, Graney said the play is “fantastically written” by Akhtar, who also wrote The War Within and The Invisible Hand. And acting in a Pulitzer Prize-winning play isn’t too shabby either, he added.
Graney said he’s looking forward to hearing and seeing the audience’s reactions and how they respond to hearing these issues.
Philadelphia Theatre Company is hosting several special events during the shows, including mixers, backstage tours of the set and post-show panel discussions with members of the cast to discuss the issues from the play in the real world.
One of those panel discussions, “The Seen and Unseen Universe: Defining the Soul at the Junction of Faith and Identity,” on Oct. 20 includes a wide range of panelists such as Hanna Khoury from Al Bustan Seeds of Culture, Rabbi Yosef Goldman from Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, the Very Reverend Judith Sullivan from the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral and the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia. The event will be moderated by Fariha Khan, associate director of Asian-American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
On Oct. 18, audiences can hear Akhtar’s perspective during an interview conducted by Khan.
If nothing else, Graney feels that between the issues raised during the performances and supplemental programming, audience members can’t help but expand and question their beliefs about how religion informs our everyday decisions about others.
“People rely on stereotypes to inform their decisions about a certain people… and I think that’s obviously not the correct way to figure out what a person is, who they are, what they’re about and what they believe.”
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