Islamophobia, immigration and identity politics. No, this isn’t a read-out of today’s headlines, it’s the topics dissected at the dinner party at the center of the one-act play “Disgraced.”
The Pultizer Prize-winning work by American playwright Ayad Akhtar was written about the wake of September 11, but could easily be transferred to today’s fraught political climate. Prospect Theater Project tackles the contemporary work with a diverse cast of largely company newcomers. The drama premieres Friday, May 5, and runs through May 21 at the downtown theater.
“It’s pessimistic to think this will continue to be timely, but I think this will be a relevant play for a long time as it deals with how we as Americans relate to the Muslims among us,” said Prospect veteran David Barbaree, who directs the play.
“Disgraced” revolves around a dinner party thrown by Muslim-American New York lawyer Amir (played by Modesto Junior College student Luis Maya in his Prospect debut) and his artist wife Emily (played by Lexi Silva, last seen in “Death of a Salesman”). At the gathering are Jory (played by Bia Hoskins), another lawyer at Amir’s firm, and her husband, Isaac (played by Michael Souto), a Jewish art gallery owner. Amir’s nephew Abe (played by Salvador Vasquez) is urging him to get involved in a case about a local imam who has been charged with supporting terrorist groups.
Both Amir and Abe have distanced themselves from their Muslim backgrounds. Amir was born in America and does not practice his parent’s faith. Abe was born in the Middle East and since coming to America has done his best to assimilate including changing his name from Hussein to Abe.
Casting the multi-cultural production proved a challenge. The company put out a call for Muslim-American and particularly Pakistani actors in the area last summer. When they were unable to find middle eastern performers, the show cast Latino actors in the roles of Amir and Abe instead.
“What we have is five actors who want very much to deliver this material to audiences in Modesto, and that’s what you need in an actor, anyway,” Barbaree said. “The playwright himself speaks so clearly, I don’t think you need actors who are (Muslim) to bring that out. We have five actors who are very believable as the character.”
For their part Maya and Vasquez said they researched Muslim culture and their characters for the roles.
“I researched the Muslim culture and particularly what they went through after 9/11. How there was such a stigma on them, which is really wrong,” Vasquez said. “The play shows where stigma and stereotyping can lead. How Abe tried to assimilate as hard as he can, but realizes this new world is never going to treat him right.”
Akhtar’s work won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013 and was the most-produced play in America for 2015.
Maya, who was last seen on stage as one of the stars of the Gallo Center Repertory Company’s production of “Sangre de un Angel” this spring, said he is humbled and honored to be part of the cast. The play also caused him to reflect on his own Mexican-American roots.
“What I hope people who see it — and not just people of the same backgrounds as the characters, but people of Mexican culture, Asian culture and others — who may think background is embarrassing think about that,” Maya said. “People should embrace their backgrounds. People come to America to be Americans, but their cultures are what America is built on.”
Barbaree said he hopes the articulate and engaging discourse between these five different characters continues in viewers homes long after the lights come back up.
“When I read the play I found myself frustrated because I’d have liked conversations to go on. But it hits us with its point and then lets the audience go home with it and continue the conversation,” he said. “I think I’d like for them to question their own confidence and how well they can understand what it is like to be another person.”