Culture Clash

Illustration of differing beliefs around a table

Illustration by Kyle Hildreth

With Disgraced, Portland Stage dives into an escalating national debate over religion, ethnicity, and American identity.

By Sara Anne Donnelly
This month, Portland Stage Company puts on Disgraced, about four friends from diverse backgrounds whose relationships unravel over questions of religion, identity, and what it means to be Muslim in America. A thought-provoking addition to the “worst dinner party ever” subgenre, Disgraced won playwright Ayad Akhtar the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013. We spoke with Portland Stage artistic director Anita Stewart about what she says is the company’s most “on the nose” play in recent memory.


Like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Disgraced protagonist Amir seems to fit the tragic hero, even anti-hero, mold. He’s an accomplished Muslim-American lawyer and devoted husband who eventually cops to feeling a “blush of pride” on 9/11, uses the n-word, and hits his wife in a rage. How do you make a character like this sympathetic?

Just like a Willy Loman, Amir is trying to do the best he can for his family. He is trying to be the one who moves beyond wherever he is. But he hits a wall where everything culturally collapses on top of him. This wife he’s in love with and trying to provide for, suddenly he sees her in the arms of another man and it opens the floodgates.

I think that [Amir] has to be sympathetic. It’s important to this play that we see what we can really relate to and where people cross lines. Everybody in the play crosses lines, and that impacts each other.

How are those lines crossed?

When the play starts, Amir’s wife, Emily, is doing a painting of him after a grand masterwork of a slave. She’s a white, wealthy woman, and somebody in the play says, hey, you had this other man of color who was a boyfriend — it’s almost like you acquire these men. [Art dealer] Isaac is Jewish and trying to get in Emily’s pants — does he really like her art or does he see it as a way of acquiring a white, non-Jewish woman? Isaac’s wife, Jory, is a black woman who works at the law firm with Amir. She gets the partnership. Does she get it because it’s politically correct?

So being Muslim in America is part of the play, but it’s also looking at other racial tensions, social tensions, who gets ahead, and who doesn’t.

What does the title refer to?

In the long run, all five characters are, to a certain degree, disgraced. None is perfect. None is right. It’s allowing you to look at the full scope and say, “We have to learn how to work together.”

We started this season with Later Life, which is an elegant, upper-class cocktail party about lily-white Boston bluebloods. That’s sort of the old America. Disgraced is the America we’re in today — it’s sophisticated, moneyed, in some ways the same as that old blueblood-came-over-on-the-Mayflower group, but it’s also multicultural. It’s women in the workplace. It’s much more brutal.

Visit portlandstage.org for tickets and information on post-show discussions about appopriation in the art world, tragic characters in American theater, and more. May 2–21. Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave., Portland. 207-774-0465.


Sara Anne Donnelly

Sara Anne Donelly is a Down East contributing editor.