If you’re not a Muslim, imagine being a Muslim living in America today.
Would you be brave enough to wear traditional garb? Would you discuss your heritage openly? Or would fear cause you to change your name and hide who you are? These are some of the questions CV Rep’s fantastic production Disgraced addresses.
Though Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play premiered in 2012, it could not possibly be any more timely than it is now. The fear, anger and bigotry our current political climate has stirred up make this play with a Muslim protagonist painfully relevant.
The tight, 80-minute production centers around Pakistani-American lawyer Amir Kapoor (Arash Mokhtar), and his American-born artist wife, Emily (Elizabeth Saydah). Amir has abandoned his Muslim upbringing: He has changed his name from Abdullah and calls himself an apostate. He passes himself off as Indian in order to get ahead in the world of corporate mergers.
Emily, meanwhile, is drawn to the exotic nature of Islamic art, and embraces Islam far more than her husband does. As the play opens, Emily is completing a portrait of her husband. She hopes the piece will be reminiscent of Diego Velazquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, a Moorish slave. The comparison, she explains, came to her after a waiter was rude to Amir at a restaurant. Emily laments the man’s inability to see her husband for who he really is, while Amir himself shrugs off the incident as just part of the racism he deals with every day.
Soon, Amir’s nephew (Kamran Abbassian) arrives. He has also turned his back on his heritage, having changed his name from Hussein Malik to Abe Jensen. Abe is seeking Amir’s help in defending a local imam who is facing charges of terrorist activity. Amir is not keen on the idea, fearing professional reprisals for getting involved in the case. When Abe tries to guilt his uncle into helping the fellow Muslim, Amir insists that he no longer practices the religion. But eventually, Amir relents and meets with the imam, though his firm is not officially defending the man. The meeting is mentioned in a newspaper article, which Amir worries could damage his professional future.
Soon, Emily gets a visit from Isaac (Joel Polis), a Jewish art gallery owner who is married to one of Amir’s colleagues, an African-American woman named Jory (Maya Lynne Robinson). He is impressed with Emily’s work, and is considering putting some of her pieces in an upcoming show.
Things come to a head three months later, during a dinner party at the Kapoor home, attended by Jory and Isaac. Amir is in a foul mood. His involvement in the Imam case has caused his law partners to question his heritage, and they are now accusing him of misrepresenting himself. The dinner conversation soon gets heated, as Amir ponders his Muslim heritage.
This production succeeds on every level. The cast is superb. I agree with an audience member who, during the post-show Q&A, called it one of the best examples of an ensemble cast he’d ever seen. However, each actor also stands out.
Mokhtar’s Amir is flawless. (Frustrated at the inability to find the right person after seeing 20 different actors, director Joanne Gordon finally struck gold and cast him via Skype.) Mokhtar’s striking good looks and charm initially hide the animosity and conflict boiling just beneath the surface. We feel for him as he struggles with questions of loyalty and cultural identity, as well as the possibilities of losing both his wife and his career.
Saydah, as Emily, is both stunning and a dynamite actress. The strong chemistry she has with Mokhtar makes us root for them as a couple. We want to see her achieve her dreams of stardom in the art world, and to live happily ever after with Amir.
Polis’ Isaac hits all the right notes as a typical New York art dealer. His intense, climactic scene with Amir hits the audience in the gut, as it should.
Abbassian holds his own as the young, earnest Abe.
Perhaps my favorite member of the cast is Maya Lynne Robinson as Jory. A strong, charismatic dramatic actress, she also provides most of the evening’s comic relief. When Isaac turns to her during a heavy political discussion and says “Honey, it’s racial profiling,” she snaps back: “I know what it is!”
I applaud artistic director Ron Celona’s choice to hold a Q&A immediately after every performance. It allows the audience to share some of the intense emotions the play stirs up, and to get to know the players a bit. Perhaps the most enlightening moment during the opening-night Q&A was the revelation that director Joanne Gordon grew up in South Africa during Apartheid. She vividly recalls that in those days, it was literally against the law for a white person to touch a black person. Perhaps that’s why she handles this play with such skill.
Jimmy Cuomo’s set is exquisite, while the lighting and sound are also spot-on.
Disgraced brings up important questions. Who are we, really? Is cultural bias in our DNA? The time to find these answers is now.
Disgraced is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 2, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. There is no show on Tuesday, March 14. Tickets are $48, and the running time is 80 minutes, with no intermission, followed by a Q&A. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.