WHEN THE UNSPOKEN INEVITABLY COMES OUT
A dinner party gone awry. That’s the best way to describe playwright Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning fiery discourse packed with surprises which is creating quite a buzz at the Panasonic Theatre this month. All of which is the dramatic result of bringing up social gathering taboo topics including, politics, race and religion.
Islamophobia fans the flames of Disgraced, the 90-minute one act presentation featuring an African American, a Jew, an apostate Muslim, and a Caucasian who come to terms with the harsh realities of their post 9-11 existence. It’s a bold sign of the times exchange that’s not going to disappear any time soon.
Cast members of the Toronto premier have waded into the text with extreme caution to expose the tribal instinct that resides in us all. One thing is certain: Their story is our story.
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“This is juicy. This is meaty. This is something to really dig into,” asserts a smiley Karen Glave who plays Jory, a high end lawyer living the American dream. “This is a dinner that could easily have taken place in Toronto.”
Michael Rubenfeld in the role of Isaac, the Liberal leaning museum curator, supports this belief despite having a different entry point flipping through the script. “When I first read the play, I was really upset,” he confesses. “I was confused as to why I was upset or how I was feeling. It’s a complicated play forcing audiences to move to the edge of their understanding. That’s what’s so brilliant about it, the narrative makes a leap from the intellectual to the emotional in a fascinating way you don’t necessarily see coming and can’t help but feel like you need to respond to it.”
Yet it takes Birgitte Solem to weigh in on matters and smartly sum up the playgoer perspicacity. “That’s something I love about this. It doesn’t tell you how you should feel, it doesn’t tell you who is right or wrong. You don’t know what the answer is, maybe there is no answer. We want you to have questions. We want you to start thinking about how you interact with other people.”
As the empathetic and nurturing Emily, an idealistic visual artist, the actor loves the fun associated with the script’s word weaving.
“And as much as it’s this deep political piece, it also lives in a place of comedy and farce,” adds Ali Momen portraying Abe, the nephew seeking legal assistance when the imam at his mosque is accused of diverting funds to support terrorist activities.
Getting to the giggles, of course, takes a bit of patience. Although not necessarily an ‘issue’ vehicle but rather a complex journey with no clear results, Raoul Bhaneja synthesizes the play’s big ideas grounded in action with a 360 degree perspective.
“The story focusses so much on assimilation,” he says. “If you come from a different background, how do you fit with the majority? Our city is full of people who come from everywhere else. For generations upon generations people have come and had to decide how much of themselves they wanted to bring into their Toronto life.”
His character, Amir, a Manhattan mergers and acquisitions lawyer of Pakistani descent, has surprising views that are kept secret.
“I would absolutely agree with that,” adds Momen reflecting upon his own Iranian background. “My father has a ten syllable name and he could turn it into a four syllable name if he chose. The question becomes how much of you is here and how much of yourself is where you came from. That is the quintessential experience that every immigrant asks.”
While the signature scene of Disgraced is the dinner gathering, playwright Ayad Akhtar’s build up and aftermath has these stage heroes in awe of his storytelling capabilities.
Glave continues, “To accurately present these perspectives with such clarity is extraordinary. Each character has very distinct, passionate points of view regarding race and religion.”
“He has a great ear for dialogue,” Bhaneja contends. “It’s not hyper theatrical. It’s unabashedly naturalistic.”
However audiences evaluate the masterfully crafted offering, there’s plenty of warm debate for the homeward migration.
“There is no truth,” assesses Rubenfeld on one of the driving points of the story. “The playwright is trying to have a conversation people need to be having, suggesting they should be more sophisticated in their thinking.”
Solem concludes, “Anybody will be ready for this play if they have an open mind going into it. Ultimately it’s about identity and multi-culturalism but at a basic level it’s about human relationships. Because if it’s not just about people, no one will be able to take anything away from it.”
DISGRACED by Ayad Akhtar April 3-24, 2016 PANASONIC THEATRE 651 Yonge Street, Toronto TICKETS $25.00 – $79.00 www.mirvish.com 416-872-1212 CAST Raoul Bhaneja, Karen Glave, Ali Momen, Michael Rubenfeld, Birgitte Solem DIRECTOR Robert Ross Parker