Actor Gaurav Kripalani, also the artistic director of The Singapore Repertory Theatre, mentioned during a post-play discussion that Disgraced—a prize-winning play by Ayad Akhtar, in which he plays the central character— is deemed controversial not because it revolves around religion or race, but because we, as a society, have stopped talking freely about issues that lie simmering beneath our harmonious facades. Kripalani couldn’t be more right.
Starring Ghafir Akbar, Jennifer Coombs, LaNisa Frederick, Daniel Jenkins and Kripalani, Disgraced shines a light on the immense trust deficit created by multiple divisions within societies that pretend not to see them. Its story revolves around a successful lawyer with South Asian roots, who has worked hard to achieve the American dream. Amir rejects everything that defines him—his surname, heritage and idealogies that were inculcated in him as a Muslim child in Pakistan—as he climbs his way to professional success at a Jewish law firm. Amir’s wife, a painter with immense admiration for Islamic art, finds herself arguing incessantly with him about Muslim beliefs and the importance of accepting one’s identity.
When Amir declines to fight for a Muslim Imam, who is accused of directing funds to the Hamas, his nephew requests him not to turn his back upon his own. At his wife’s behest, he finally takes negligible interest in the case but realizes that his future could be in peril when a news report describes him as a “supporter” of the Imam. As the story winds itself through various arguments at the dinner table—Amir hosts a party for his African-American colleague and her Jewish husband—we realize that Amir has not come to terms with his past, which continues to have a firm hold on him despite his many attempts at erasing it.
That he would spit on his Jewish friend and hit his wife towards the end of the play, or that he would blame Americans for creating the Taliban and inviting the World Trade Centre attacks, clearly indicates Amir’s failure at uprooting his inner demons in his struggle to seem unaffected by race or religion. It also highlights the prejudices and perceptions people—even the so-called educated elite—hold towards one another, and the acrimony that develops in societies that suppress resentment and fear instead of openly discussing them.
Though it could provoke consternation among the Muslim community because of constant references to the Quran, Disgraced is a play that is relevant for societies everywhere—from America to India and Singapore. That a highly controlled Singapore decided to give this play a go-ahead is a clear signal that no place on earth can continue to ignore underlying tension amongst communities that need to flourish together. Kripalani stressed that the Media Development Authority of Singapore passed the play—which ran at The Singapore Repertory Theatre for several days till December 9 this year—with the caveat that the audience would be engaged in a post-play discussion. Indeed, it is time we learn to talk.