Presented by the Huntington Theatre Co.
Written Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Review by Kitty Drexel
(Boston, MA) Disgraced tackles the complicated conundrum of existential humanity. One of the most trying aspects of existing is reconciling our darkest impulses against pointless altruism. For an example unrelated to the show, one can rashly wish the perpetrators of a horrendous crime to wither slowly in the blazing fires of Hell while still feeling compassion for the perp’s family. Meanwhile, expressing neither of these thoughts out loud. Simply wishing to be lawfully good does not eradicate one’s potential for committing chaotic evil acts. If so, the behavioral teachings of religion, say, would be unnecessary. Humans are complicated beasties.
Disgraced is about two couples and one nephew engaging in private discussions on race relations that take place in the comfort of one’s own home, behind closed doors. The cast is composed of five characters only one of which is white (and she’s a woman). This means POCs are enabled to talk about their own experiences without a “helpful” white person to correct them. If there’s anything controversial about this play, it’s that. The lone white person isn’t tasked in explaining racism to POCs. It’s a nice change to trust the experiences of victims.
The Hungtington’s production is stellar. The writing by Ayad Akhtar attacks racism from so many different angles that it is impossible to like any of his characters… And yet we still sympathize with them. In fact, under the cloying gaze of the racist building blocks so fundamental to Western Society, Akhtar allows his characters their personhood in order of colonialist rule (whitest first). Appropriation rears its nasty head almost immediately. I could do on but it’s easier to understand if you see it in person.
Beneficial racism and sexism are on proud display; the women, of course, remain the nurturing peacekeepers until their shocking reveals; the men get to play dirty from the get go. Even worse, their hateful speech is insidiously protected by personal expressions of belief and thought. As if the brunt of racism or sexism didn’t directly correlate to personal opinion and action. All of the dialogue is loaded. There is no escape for the audience.
The direction is clear cut and focused. It looks as if Edelstein dared his actors to go with the most difficult acting choices rather than take any easy ways out. What we see is a calculated production rife with alienating cultural differences and heartbreaking similarities. This doesn’t sound like the most convincing of reasons to go but it actually is. Relationships are difficult. Edelstein captures that difficulty near perfectly.
The cast goes out of its way to imbue their characters with relatable instincts of self-preservation. This isn’t a play with a clear definition of right and wrong. There’s no simple moral to sum up how to be a decent person. No, the characters argue with the intention of proving themselves more right than anyone else in the room. We see our heroes fall from their own pedestals and it’s captivating to watch.
Rajesh Bose steals the night and carries the show. His Amir is strong like an ox, stubborn like a mule but has a childlike vulnerability that makes him equally lovable and hateable. We don’t get to know Amir’s backstory but Bose’s choices ensures that we’d like to.
Shirine Babb as Jory easily had the best one-liners in the show. Babb made an unfunny topic hilarious.
There is stage combat in this production. Thanks to excellent acting from the cast and fight direction from Rick Sordelet, it reaches the kind of excellence that confuses the brain into believing that what is happening on stage is real while simultaneously broadcasting that the actors are safe. It is short. It is traumatizing. It sets a very high bar for professional theatre.
The night I attended, the audience was more diverse than it usually is at the Huntington. Even if Disgraced doesn’t sound like a thing you’d enjoy, I suggest you go anyway. Inequality ends when we keep the conversation going and allow ourselves to learn from the experiences of others. The world being a better place through nonviolent means is good for everyone.