Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Zakiya Young (Jory), and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, a combustible drama that probes the complexity of identity, at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Liz Lauren
, a combustible drama that probes the complexity of identity, at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Liz Lauren

The exceptional and intense Pulitzer prize-winning drama, Disgraced, is a timely and unflinching exposition into the power and perils of race and ethnicity in America. Talented novelist (American Dervish) and playwright Ayad Akhtar elegantly communicates these multifaceted concepts using only four main characters, whose lives change over the course of a social dinner.

Amir Kapoor (Bernard White), a Pakistani American corporate lawyer, is hoping to make partner at his predominantly Jewish New York law firm. He claims to be Indian (and therefore Hindu), hoping to hide his less acceptable Muslim background. After all, he has rejected his religion, calling the Koran, “one very long hate mail letter to humanity.”

Living a sophisticated American life is far more significant to Amir than looking backwards at his religion and race. But, as much as he wants to escape his heritage, like a dark enveloping shadow, it hauntingly reappears. As my mother was fond of saying, “If you try to escape your background, people will be glad to remind you of it.”

Bernard White (Amir) and Nisi Sturgis (Emily) in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced at Berkeley Rep.Photo: Liz Lauren

In the first scene, we see a pant-less Amir posing for a portrait. His lovely, very blonde WASP wife, visual artist Emily (Nisi Sturgis), is painting her husband, using the theme of the famous 17th-century portrait of the proud moor, Juan De Pareja, by his master Velázquez. But most all of her work employs medieval Islamic art themes. She is close with Amir’s floundering nephew Abe, née Hussein (Behzad Dabu), who keeps trying to lure Amir back into the Muslim community. We observe the couple’s unspoken attraction — Emily for her moor and Amir for his trophy American wife, and a foreshadowing of a tragic Shakespearean theme.

Several months pass. Amir’s work life leaves him unsettled and anxious about his partnership. His marriage to Emily seems to be slipping away from him. They have planned a dinner for Amir’s colleague, the tough and savvy African-American attorney, Jory (Zakiya Young) who is married to the important Jewish art dealer, Isaac (J. Anthony Crane). Isaac is fascinated with Emily’s Islamic art, and with Emily. She is hopeful that her work will be included in his next major art show.

Before Emily’s pork dinner is served, the men drink too much Scotch. With societal inhibitions loosened, Isaac’s slight condescension, “You have the same idea of the good life as I do,” triggers Amir’s self-loathing and fuels his rage. All hope of a cordial, multicultural evening with friends evaporates as secrets are revealed and actions taken from which a return to the norm is impossible.

Playwright Ayad Akhtar deftly crafted the fast-paced dialogue in Disgraced so the characters’ foibles, which lead to the dinner débacle, are observable from the start. For example, Emily naively pushes Amir to help his nephew Abe’s Imam with his criminal prosecution. And, although Jory and Amir are friendly at the law firm, they are both up for partnership.

I was fortunate to see Disgraced in its Broadway run earlier this year, although the play began life in Chicago, and had a short run at the Lincoln Center Theater before it moved to Broadway. Now that Disgraced is making the rounds at regional theaters, it played in Chicago again, with the same actors that we are seeing in Berkeley Rep’s production. The cast very is strong, with excellent performances by all. Kimberly Senior, who has directed Disgraced from the first, knows the play backwards and forwards, and it shows.

Even in my second viewing, I was completely engaged in the drama. It’s a remarkable portrait of our racial and religious beliefs and prejudices, made even more current and poignant by recent events in Paris.

Disgraced is playing at Berkeley Rep through Sunday Dec. 27. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.

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Emily S. Mendel

Freelancer Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although now a 37-year East Bay resident), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...