The rules of polite dinner conversation etiquette in a post-9/11 society: never discuss politics, religion, race, or terrorism. Obviously the memo wasn’t sent out to the four guests who attended the most explosive dinner party in an upper-class Manhattan apartment in New York.
Did he just say that… out loud?
That is what you will ask yourself while watching the Brisbane debut of politically charged, Pulitzer-Prize winning play Disgraced, written by Ayad Ahktar and presented by Queensland Theatre and Melbourne Theatre Company at QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre.
Cloaked in confidence with his $600 business shirts, Amir Kapoor (Hazem Shammas), is making his way up the ranks in a Jewish law firm, biding his time for a presumably inevitable promotion to partner. Born of Pakistani parents, Kapoor, an apostate, has so vehemently rejected his Islamic roots that he changed his name from Abdullan to the Punjabi name Kapoor.
His American wife, Emily (Libby Munro), is an emerging artist influenced by the romantic ideals of Islam. One of her Islamic painting hangs on the wall as the centre-piece in the apartment – sitting silently, but ever-present.
Enter the dinner guests: Isaac (Mitchell Butel), a non-practicing Jewish art dealer who is about to announce the inclusion of Emily’s work in his next exhibition, and his wife African-American wife Jory (Zindzi Okenyo), who is Amir’s colleague, equally hungry for partner status in the law firm.
When the alcohol-infused dinner party conversation brings up a newspaper article inaccurately linking Amir to an imam charged with raising money for Hamas, all proprieties are dropped and the carnage begins. It is the spicy topics of taboo that many people think about, rebuke in public, but quietly agree with in the privacy of their own mind: prejudices fuelled by fear, ignorance, and ingrained bias. It all seeps through the cracks of their well-maintained manner until the dam bursts, spewing forth the backlog of hate, anger, and noxious words. There is so much destruction they may never recover.
Even though the play is set in New York, the same sentiments, prejudices and sore-spots are keenly felt in Australia and the work feels particularly relevant to our current cultural climate.
Good theatre should not just reflect life but challenge you to think about the uncomfortable topics you’d rather not consider. Rather than sweeping the elephant under the rug, Ahktar invited it to dinner and offered it a seat at the head of the table.
In our contemporary political correct society, it seems we’ve made tremendous advancements in equality – a respect for diversity and provisions for inclusivity of race, religion, and gender… but have we really? Disgraced confronts that tenuous belief and asks you to have an honest check-in with yourself.
Under the astute direction of Nadia Tass, the one-act play is well paced and builds the tension with ease, without foreshadowing any plot twists. It is also well cast with strong performances by the ensemble of five.
Hazem Shammas’ Amir begins as a caricature of a cocky lawyer with the world at his feet. Throughout the play we see him disintegrate; he’s a man at odds with himself and his place in the world. It is in these moments of confusion and despair as he spirals that reveals him to be a complex, rather than stereotypical, character.
Libby Munro’s Emily displays a more positive, albeit naïve, view of the world, and represents the ‘other’ world that exists outside of corporate capitalism and prejudice. But even she is not saved from the carnage, becoming both a victim and consequence of the dominating forces beyond her earnest intentions.
Kane Felsinger who plays Amir’s nephew Abe in his QTC debut, balances out Amir’s cultural principles. Like Amir, he at first denounces his faith and changes his name to fit into Western society, but then reinstates his original name and Islamic beliefs.
The high gloss, contemporary yet minimalistic set design of Amir’s upper-class Manhattan apartment with accompanying mezzanine level is tastefully designed by Shaun Gurton, and well lit by Nigel Levings. Sound design by Russell Goldsmith and Daniel Nixon subtly enhanced the atmosphere of the piece whilst not pulling too much focus.
Disgraced played at the Playhouse QPAC until November 6.