The Pulitzer Prize in Drama is awarded “for a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.” Disgraced certainly has plenty to say about dealing with American life, insofar as I can perceive it from Australia; the play is set in a contemporary, post-9/11 New York, and charts the implosion of Amir (Sachin Joab), an apostate Muslim of Pakistani heritage who is consistently at odds with himself.
He has changed his surname, allowed the partners of the law firm where he works to assume he is Punjabi (the region his parents come from were still India when they were born, he reasons, though it’s now known as Pakistan), and is openly derisive of Islam. His wife Emily (Sophie Ross), is an artist who is fascinated by Islamic tiling and tradition, drawing on these for her work, and she might get a spot at the Whitney thanks to Isaac (Glenn Hazeldine), a mutual acquaintance – he is married to Amir’s colleague Jory (Paula Arundell).
When Amir’s nephew Abe (Shiv Palekar) asks for help with his Imam’s legal troubles, Amir can no longer compartmentalise his past and present, and the resulting conflict grows into an ugly treatise on race relations, discrimination, and self-loathing.
Abe’s storyline proves the most interesting – he moves in an opposite direction to Amir, changing his name back from the Anglicised one he initially adopts, finding solace from discrimination in faith; the two men handle their heritage very differently within the context a country that wants to ridicule and/or harm them for it, and perhaps the key to this play lies in these two men – but in the script and onstage, that never feels fully realised, and this tension seems an afterthought.
As a work of playwriting it’s all a bit predictable, shaped from old clichés and half-formed imagery, as well as storylines, like the contrasting evolutions of Amir and Abe, that are never explored enough to really ignite the audience. A woman cheats on her husband, and she tells the man that “it was a mistake,” in a line we’ve heard a thousand times before. At (what else?) a dinner party, Amir lashes out at Isaac and Jory, targeting Isaac’s Judaism and Jory’s lived experience as a Black woman, before he lashes out – physically – at his wife.
These are all recognisable, reliably shocking events that are often found in drama, but Disgraced feels like a flat piece of work; it’s more boring than startling, and it seems troublingly easy to read the play’s intention to ask the audience to see Islam as Amir does – a tribal religion without merit that encourages violence and brutal prejudice. There’s something beneath the surface about Amir’s self-fulfilling self-loathing that is never really communicated enough to make this view feel specific to Amir rather than a blanket condemnation, and this problem doesn’t seem to be only the result of Sarah Goodes’ direction; rather, it’s in the oddly limp script itself, and it seems difficult to elevate the work into something more sharp, even for Goodes, who is a remarkably skilled and usually quite exciting director.
Disgraced is a polemic that can’t decide on a target, a debate without much of a thesis; it’s confusing and confused. Maybe that really does reflect various racial and cultural identities in an America full of racial profiling and racial hurts, deep wounds that never quite heal. Certainly our own wounds are just confusing and confused; certainly it’s part of Australia to lash out at others too when our identities are challenged and insulted by others. Certainly refugees, immigrants, religious and racial minorities are treated casually cruelly in Australia. But this play doesn’t feel relatable or useful at all; it feels like it affirms deeply held biases against its minority characters.
I wonder what the production would have looked like with a Muslim director. It’s fine in Goodes’ hands, and the actors deliver strong, committed performances, and everything is fine, but ultimately a lot of fine just feels bland.
It’s a mystery why both Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company have programmed the work. The Pulitzer Prize is a deeply American honour and this is a deeply American play; perhaps it suits Australian audiences better to produce a work about our own racial and cultural wounds, from a strong, ambitious piece of local playwriting.