Theatre has a history of raising necessary community dialogue about social issues that are difficult to discuss. For example, in 1994, the musical Rent by Jonathan Larson premiered and brought HIV/AIDS awareness to a mainstream audience. Not only did it start a dialogue, but the show became a leader in fundraising for those affected by the diseases (Cocovinis, 2011). Rent is not unique; research suggests that audience members who witness performances that deal with social problems tend to want to talk about them afterwards (Kelaher et. al. 2012). Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a production of Disgraced at Syracuse Stage in Syracuse, NY, which promoted community dialogue about one of the most infamous off-limits subjects of polite conversation: religion.
Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, with its eighteen professional performances, was the most-produced play in the United States in 2015. This season it was still in the top three (Tran). Popular since its premiere in Chicago in 2012, Disgraced has had Off-Broadway and Broadway productions, and has been produced in many other major cities.
Disgraced tells the story of Amir, a present day, non-religious man who was raised Muslim. It explores how Amir’s Muslim background affects his treatment at work and his relationship with his nephew, Abe, who does not understand why Amir feels compelled to distance himself from his Muslim family and community. It also takes a look how Amir’s Muslim background affects his relationships with his friends and wife. The main conflict occurs in a dinner party scene in which Amir and his friends of different religious and ethnic backgrounds get into a heated argument over their perceptions of their own religions and those of each other. This scene struck a chord with many audience members.
By showing different characters’ perspectives, the play skillfully presents its characters’ unique and personal relationships with faith. What are Amir’s personal feelings about his Muslim background? How do they come up in his day to day life? Amir’s experiences, and those of his friends, shed light on American lived religion, which according to Religious Studies scholar Robert A. Orsi (2003), examines how religion manifests itself in people’s daily lives and practices, rather than reducing a religion simply to the tenets it proclaims and the texts it follows. This can help us understand the intricacies of religion and also brings the human being into the picture.
“This way of approaching religious worlds eliminates the comfort of academic distance and undermines the confidence and authority of the claims “we are not them” and “they are not us.” We may not condone or celebrate the religious practices of others but we cannot dismiss them as inhuman, so alien from us that they cannot be understood or approached, only contained or obliterated” (Orsi 174).
In alignment with Orsi, Akhtar, who has written a few other plays that center on the Muslim identity and experience in the United States, is quoted in the Syracuse Stage Disgraced program saying, “I’m not writing from theory…I’m just observing people in my life and my family and I’m also observing myself and I’m sort of creating narrative out of these observations. Being Muslim. Being American.” (Syracuse Stage). So the stories presented onstage are actually based on Akhtar’s own experience and his observations of real people’s individual interpretations of their religions. And through this kind of work, Akhtar creates characters with whom audience members are able to empathize. This, in turn, promotes social awareness.
According to an actor in the production, Syracuse Stage scheduled a talkback after each performance of the show, which is a rarity for a regional theatre. A talkback is an informal conversation between actors and audience. Audience members are encouraged to react to the show and ask questions of the actors. Often talkbacks are special occasions. The inclusion of talkbacks shows the weight Syracuse Stage puts on importance of community discourse, especially on the themes of religion and identity highlighted in this production. Also surprising to me was the fact that most of the audience stayed, as I have been to shows at which only fifteen out of two hundred people stay for the talkback. The questions asked went far beyond the typical, “How long did it take you to memorize those lines?” This audience wanted to know the actors’ opinions of the perspectives they represented onstage. The audience asked questions about the play’s title in relation to the events they saw unfold, and wanted to discuss religious identity- their own and their connections to those they saw depicted onstage.
Disgraced is the perfect example of theatre’s ability to promote necessary community dialogue about important social problems. In a country that recently barred the entrance of citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries (Diamond, 2017), it is fitting that one of the most-produced plays at professional theaters is one by a Muslim American playwright that tells the stories of two Muslim American men and their different experiences with Islam. The message that these theaters are sending is: the Muslim American identity is important and nuanced. It’s worth exploring onstage and discussing afterwards.