Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Milwaukee Rep presents "Disgraced"

A Pulitzer Prize-winning & conversation-starting play

Boy does the Milwaukee Repertory Theater know how to pick timely, award-winning, brilliantly-acted, edge-of-your-seat plays time and again. Disgraced comes from playwright Ayad Akhtar, whose Invisible Hand played the Stiemke Studio last year. This particular Akhtar play hit a little closer to home — both figuratively and literally. It takes place exclusively in a New York City high-rise, and the characters — though ethnically diverse — are all American.

Yet the themes are not dissimilar. Disgraced has a lot to do with fanatic Islam in relation to American society, though it doesn't stop there. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play runs the gamut of issues, from 9/11 to perceptions of Judaism to white privilege to extremist rage to art appreciation vs. appropriation — I could go on and on.

In fact, there are so many thought-provoking nuggets sprinkled throughout the fast-paced Disgraced, you will inevitably feel like this one's going to take a while to digest. Through the many layers and viewpoints expressed by the four main characters, I found it impossible to come away with any one concrete point. But surely that, in itself, is the point: that politics, religion, and racism are incredibly complex.

Disgraced tells the story of American-born, Muslim-raised Amir Kapoor (played by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh). Amir has changed his surname so as to distance himself from his Pakistani and Muslim roots — something he evidently feels he must do in order to make it as a successful mergers and acquisitions lawyer in New York. Amir is indeed successful by American society's standards: about to named partner and living in a Manhattan condo with his young, beautiful, rising-artist wife, Emily (a well-bred white woman — played by Janie Brookshire).

The central action in Disgraced is a dinner party, where Amir and Emily welcome Amir's colleague Jory (Austene Van) and her prestigious art-curator husband Isaac (Jason Babinsky) into their home. Jory is a vivacious black woman and sought-after attorney, who we learn pulled herself out of the slums. Isaac is a smart, high-brow, artistic type — and Jewish. Key details in the world of Disgraced

Over the course of dinner, there's some talk of "what's in this salad?" — but as you might imagine in a conversation-starting play, the characters' chatter quickly takes a serious turn. Name a hot-button issue, they cover it. Small gasps and fidgets escaped the audience in the Quadracci Powerhouse as Holy Books, airport security, and self-loathing took dinner conversation to a dicy level.

The actors each give superb, believable performances that will shake theater-goers throughout Disgraced's run at the Milwaukee Rep. I felt for these flawed people and their various views on race, politics, and religion — views that challenged me to question my own. I'm ultimately struck by how Disgraced drives home that our experiences, upbringings, and heritage will inevitably shape our lives, outlook, and the way we interact with the world around us. 

I can't help but draw timely comparisons to the Womens March and the voices that stand in opposition to that cause — women claiming they don't feel unheard, so why do the rest of you? Akhtar cunningly prompts us to stop and reflect. We're all products of our world — our personal little world — and that world shapes our view on everything. It can be beautiful, but it can also be disgraceful if you limit your scope to your own small experience. Personally, I'm making a conscious effort to choose introspection, honest conversation, and empathy over dismissiveness and derision. How about you? 

Thank you to Ayad Akhtar and the Milwaukee Rep for bringing such fiery, thought-provoking theater to our city. Disgraced is guaranteed to get folks thinking and talking; I speak from experience.

Disgraced is playing now through February 12th at the Milwaukee Rep. Find more info and tickets at

*Photos by Michael Brosilow

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