It might sound like the lead-in to a joke: A Jew, a Muslim, an African-American and a white woman walk into a dinner party and…That’s sort of the setup to Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced, now onstage in an Asolo Rep production at the Historic Asolo Theater.
But while there are some sharply funny lines in this tautly directed 90-minute production, the payoff of Akhtar’s five-character play is anything but light-hearted. It will certainly make you think about what it means to be an American in our 21st-century, racially diverse society, about the misperceptions we all have about each other’s faiths, race and cultural backgrounds, and the difficulty of truly reaching any common ground.
The first half of the play introduces us to successful Muslim-American lawyer Amir (Dorien Makhloghi) and his Caucasian wife, Emily (Lee Stark), an artist with a sincere passion for referencing ancient Islamic imagery in her own work. Amir, initially, shows little interest in anything about his own cultural background; he’s more focused on making partner with his firm.
And a possible roadblock to that endeavor pops up when Emily and Amir’s nephew Abe (Nik Sadhnani), who’s changed his name from Hussein in an attempt to assimilate as Amir has, team up to ask Amir to help an imam they believe has been wrongfully jailed. Amir has his doubts about getting involved—doubts that begin to seem justified during the centerpiece of the show, the dinner that takes place some weeks later.
That’s when Disgraced begins to build tension, as curator Isaac (Jordan Sobel), the Jewish-American in the equation, and his wife, Jory (Biana LaVerne Jones), an African-American lawyer in Amir’s firm, arrive to celebrate Isaac’s choice of Emily’s work for an important show. It only takes about half an hour for the friendly conversation over drinks and salad to escalate to an explosion that will change everyone’s lives.
And the dialogue in that scene, delivered with passion and precision by the cast (all of whom seem to have a firm handle on their characters), is smart, probing, honest and at times painful, as these people confront their prejudices and beliefs about each other and themselves—just as we must do while watching them.
Director Michael Donald Edwards has staged the show for maximum effect on a set by Reid Thompson that represents an upscale Manhattan apartment that might be owned by a couple like Amir and Emily, with a backdrop of the city and, as its central focus, an Islamic-influenced painting by Emily. And the cast works together at a high level of intensity to deliver not just viewpoints but real, actual people who have all faced obstacles due to their racial or ethnic make-up. Stark, Makhloghi and Bianca LaVerne Jones are especially compelling in their performances, but all of the actors are strong.
The result is a provocative piece that will not only have you talking when you leave the theater, but examining your own value systems and your reactions to issues, in light of news stories we read or watch every day, that seem more and more pertinent—and threatening.
Disgraced continues through April 24; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.