“Disgraced’s” Relevancy Makes It A Broadway Must-See

Broadway tends to lag behind on cultural relevancy and new ideas, exploring issues and themes some significant time after they are at the forefront of conversation in other media like literature and television. This is largely due to the fact that the time it takes for a playwright’s completed work to get on the Broadway stage spans in years, sometimes even closer to a decade.

So it must have been exhilarating for the company at Disgraced, which won Ayad Akhtar the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and completed Off-Broadway and London runs in succession of each other, to be a play whose central topic has been the subject of much discussion in recent weeks. Just two weeks after Disgraced began previews, the internet erupted with commentary a Bill Maher segment in which Maher and his guest Sam Harris argued that Islam is inherently violent and that liberals should not shy away from condemning Islam for perpetuating war and hatred as part of its belief system. Disgraced‘s Amir Kapoor (played by Hari Dhillon), a corporate lawyer in constant battle with his Muslim upbringing, espouses a similar approach to Maher’s, but makes a far more believable and furious defense, using his own destructive experiences to support his claims.

Opposing his views is Amir’s wife Emily (Gretchen Mol), an up-and-coming artist whose latest work incorporates Islamic art and architecture into patterned paintings and sketches. In Islamic culture, she finds a certain artistic freedom from Western tradition. Emily invites Isaac (Josh Radnor), the Whitney’s curator, and his wife, Amir’s colleague, Jory (Karen Pittman) for dinner to discuss displaying her work at a new show. Isaac is a secular Jew, a laid-back, self-deprecating liberal who, like Emily, tends to celebrate abstract ideals and cultural diversity, in contrast to Amir and Jory’s cynically-minded preference for facts and critical judgment.

Cast of Disgraced, Photo by Joan Marcus

Yet, the characters hardly fall into such tightly organized molds. The characters’ resistance to becoming preconceived types is one of the triumphs of Akhtar’s play. Disgraced is far more interested in the characters’ human flaws and failures than in their divisive and intangible arguments. While they may at first seem like mouthpieces for one political side or another, their arguments soon deconstruct themselves and their actions become aggressive contradictions of the beliefs they put forward in the earlier half of the play. If coming into grace signifies a sort of heavenly, transcendent state of renewal and forgiveness, then Disgraced is exactly the opposite. If there is a message of this work, besides the fact that the way we talk about race and religion in our world lacks true nuance and sensitivity, it’s that people under pressure resort to their most atavistic, tribal instincts. When threatened or angered, we reject hope, we reject transcending our subjectivity. We re-enact a clan-like mentality, debase ourselves to animalistic states, and reduce our opponents to their race, class, or religion. Akthar’s play doesn’t exactly provide a hopeful resolution of how to discuss the issues he presents, but his thought-provoking and sobering climax is an important one to see.

Disgraced opens at the Lyceum Theatre on October 23.

‘Burq Off’ Looks at Western World Through a Burqa

“There’s no sex in Pakistani homes,” Nadia Manzoor’s narrator says. And it would certainly seem that way in a household where watching Dallas in something you do in a locked room and a list of rules hangs in your college dorm room, which includes staying three feet away from a member of the opposite sex.

All this would be a little easier for an adolescent Nadia to swallow if she weren’t surrounded by modern Western values in North London, where her parents’ no-touching, no-dating policy is not quite the norm among her white friends. Burq Off, Nadia Manzoor‘s one-woman show, follows Nadia’s search for a feminine identity from childhood to her early 20’s while navigating the cultural conflicts of her British-Pakistani home.

Nadia P. Manzoor in Burq Off
Nadia P. Manzoor in Burq Off

Burq Off is funny and incredibly endearing. Each one of Manzoor’s 21 characters, largely her family and friends, feel like tangible, complex individuals. From her kind and affable mother to the violent unrest of radical Muslim college boys, Manzoor captures their physicality, motivations, and history with intuitive clarity. Every inch of Burq Off‘s set, designed by Mitchell Ost, is covered in colorful pieces of Middle Eastern women’s cloth. Manzoor creatively uses these cloths and some simple furniture as her props. Burq Off can also be exhilarating. Manzoor splits intervals of her show with short dancing pieces. She re-creates one dance from a Bollywood movie her family has gone to see, but puts her own edgy spin on it so that it both honors her cultural heritage but imbues it with wit, attitude, and sexiness. It’s a pretty great micro-representation of the show’s approach to Nadia’s cultural influences.

Burq Off covers such a wide range of Ms. Manzoor’s experiences and one scene can contain just as diverse an array of emotions. But what stands out most in the show is how Nadia finds the strength time and time again (and in radically opposite ways) to feel confident as a Muslim, as a woman, and as a daughter. For example, in her early teens, it’s her modesty that makes Nadia feel empowered. Later on, it’s showing off her bare skin. And when her mother is on her death bed, it’s maternal acceptance that allows Nadia to move forward as a mature woman and love herself for who she is. Burq Off refuses to portray Nadia as a victim; instead Nadia’s  journey has many layers to it– it’s sexy, it’s fun, it’s ambitious, it’s honest– and we’re all left feeling a bit more empowered ourselves through her.

Burq Off plays at Walkerspace (46 Walker St.) through March 30. Tickets here.




Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: