My husband and I went to see Seattle Repertory Theater coproduction of Ayad Akhtar’s play Disgraced at Bagley last weekend. When we arrived the theater was already charged with heightened audience anticipation. The people who congregated around the packed lobby chatted excitedly while consuming wine or snacks. It was almost palpable that the audience was expecting something exciting that would engage their hearts and minds. (It is always possible that such an impression is largely a projection of my own state of mind. Since I knew this play was provocative I felt the excitement.) As people took seats I observed a somewhat interesting scene: a lone late arriver looked for his seat, asked for an usher’s help, and finally locating his assigned seat, and looked uncomfortable that he had to pass about seven people to get to his seat; the “problem” was solved when a few people suggested that they move to the inside and allow him to sit on the aisle seat.
When the stage got illuminated we saw two actors: a woman who was drawing and a man, who was fully dressed with a tie and a jacket only from his waist up, modeling for her. As they started talking, occasionally expressing unmissable disrespect to some people (for example, the man calling his assistant an “eternal paralegal”), they presented themselves as uppity young professionals as if they were in a stereotypical irreverent TV sit-com. The scene was very familiar but at the same time puzzling because the meaning of a half-dressed man was not immediately clear. But, after some thought I interpreted the beginning scene to mean to show the insidious power relationship between the apparently happily married couple, a second-generation Pakistani immigrant lawyer Amir and his blond ambitious artist wife Emily: since the husband is made into the object of gaze (as a half-dressed man at that) by the wife, the traditional gender relation, where a man is more powerful than a woman, is inverted, while maintaining the colonialist race relation where white is more powerful than brown. In a way, I would say the very first scene hinted at the dramatic trajectory of the play.
As young apparently self-assured New York professionals, these two characters, particularly the man, treat other people as if they were their inferiors. As two more similarly successful characters, an African American lawyer Jory and her Jewish art curator husband Isaac, appeared on stage to attend a dinner party hosted by Amir and Emily, minor put-downs and ridicules were exchanged, first tentatively and then with full force, producing a scene that is quite offensive, but nevertheless occasionally observable in real-life social gatherings. People frequently play the game of one-upmanship whenever they feel they have to show their superiority. These verbal one-upmanship games involving contemporary hot-button issues, such as race, gender, class, religion, and international and home-grown terrorism, are the uncomfortable source of audience laughter as well as further thoughts of this intentionally provocative play. In the end, Amir and Emily both suffered the consequence of pathetic power game played out during their dinner party. I felt the explosive ending was shocking but a little forced because it suggested Amir had no free will, unable to escape his upbringing. On the whole, the play was riveting, thought-provoking, and perhaps one of the most interesting stage plays I have seen in recent years.
Disgraced was rather short, lasting only about one and a half hours. However, it packed many of the contemporary society’s hot-button topics in a limited time and an intellectually engaging manner. The play was topical, but it also showed a universal theme of alienation and the growing pain experienced by many immigrants, particularly immigrants from underdeveloped societies who struggle to adjust to the social mores of their newly adopted developed societies.