Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Playwright Ayad Akhtar On The Wonder and Terror Of Life

Nina Subin
Ayad Akhtar

Ayad Akhtar was sitting in the Starbucks near the corner of West Blue Mound Road and Highway 100 in late 2008 when the idea came to him - a play about relationships, Muslim-American identity and the immigrant experience in the United States, and what all of it might look like 10 years after 9/11. Those early notes became the powerful play Disgraced.

The play won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It has become one of the most produced plays in the world. The Milwaukee Rep’s production opened last week to great acclaim.  

Akhtar, who grew up in Brookfield and went to Brookfield Central High School, was in town for the opening and found a few minutes to have a wide ranging conversation with Lake Effect's Bonnie North about art, finance, Muslim identity, and of course, the play. 

"I think I couldn't have known what the play seemed to know, which is that public conversation, public discourse, public rhetoric would degrade to such a degree in this country that people would allow themselves the incivility that one hears on a regular basis," he explains. " You know, when I wrote the play, that world was still not imaginable. One could only imagine that world on a stage where characters are talking to each other that way. Now, it's what we have become."

Credit Michael Brosilow
Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents “ Disgraced” in the Quadracci Powerhouse Jan 17 – February 12, 2017. Featuring Maboud Ebrahimzadeh and Janie Brookshire.

Disgraced characters Amir and Emily Kapoor are a modern, high achieving American couple - he in mergers and acquisitions, she an artist. Although Amir was born in the US, he’s of Pakistani origin; Emily is white. Their relationship, and how it overlaps with that of another mixed-race couple, sets the stage for an explosive and excoriating examination of what it means to truly be ourselves.

Akhtar has gotten quite a bit of push back from the Muslin-American community for depicting a character who seems to not like himself or his religion very much. "And often actually what happens is that Muslim viewers will come up to me [and say] 'Look we understand what you are doing, just don't do it in front of white people.'"

He welcomes the feedback, but "at the end of the day, an artist's job is not to make anyone look good... I’m not sure why a character who is conflicted and is something of an antihero in a play about Muslim-American experience becomes emblematic for every Muslim that has ever existed."

But, for Akhtar art is ultimately about unity, rather than division. "I think, again, it goes back to that sense that art to me is about renewing or restoring a sense of vividness and sensitivity to the great depth, wonder and terrors of life."

Disgraced is currently running at the Milwaukee Rep through February 12th.

Lake Effect's Bonnie North participates in a panel, No Politics at Dinner, after a performance of Disgraced.

Stay Connected
Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.