Disgraced review (QPAC, Brisbane)

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A generation ago it used to be the Jews, now it’s the Muslims. Everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask …

Disgraced is a very modern, very open, finely nuanced play first produced on Broadway in 2012, which won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. And where else but America? Because it deals with every modern issue, especially those which are now becoming commonplace at every professional-class dinner party you’ve been to in Australia recently.

The five protagonists are Amir (Hazem Shammas), a nice American-born, now agnostic Pakistani/Muslim, who has joined a firm of Jewish lawyers; his unreconstructed nephew Abe, young, angry and politically engaged, the modern white person’s image of the Muslim who-must-be-feared (Kane Felsinger); Amir’s wife Emily (Libby Munro), a successful Caucasian painter becoming interested in cultural Islam; Jory, an Afro-American whose type has outgrown last century’s prejudices (Zindzi Okenyo); and her husband Isaac (Mitchell Butel), Emily’s Jewish art dealer.

So we have a dinner party that includes an ex-Muslim, an African-American, a Jew and a WASP, with frequent interruptions from Abe, the type of young Muslim that so many prejudiced people would regard as a potential terrorist. That just about covers every type, so here’s a potential howdy-do, when beneath the surface of a well-integrated, mutual accepting social group, all kinds of religious, racial and politically oriented prejudices and angers emerge. We have racial identity here, Islamophobia, subtle social typing, and a nasty little touch of domestic violence, and it soon becomes clear that we can neither outgrow nor ultimately discard our basic cultural values.

This is a fine ensemble of actors and director Nadia Tass has them working seamlessly together. As audience, we are not permitted to take sides or have favourites, but this may be because as Australians, we feel ourselves a little aloof from this upper-middle-class New York milieu, and I wonder how it would work in a lower-middle-class multi-cultural Australian setting.

As it is, it’s so full of ideas and incidents and philosophical convolutions that there’s almost too much for a one-act 90 minute play. My brain was hurting by the end, trying to juggle all these ideas and situations in my mind. More suitable, perhaps, as a three-act play, where the ideas could be worked out in a more leisurely fashion, or even as a serious television series. Racism 101 at a progressive university, even, where it could easily be the basis of a full-semester course.

It has the whiff of the David Williamsons about it, with its articulate accessible dialogue, its easy mix of ideas, theme and characters, and its clever sleights-of-hand. Sets, lighting and costume are as good as you could wish, and it’s almost a perfect example of an ensemble piece, so I wish I could have enjoyed it more.

“A combustible powder keg of identity politics”, one commentator called it, “that depicts racial and ethnic prejudices that secretly persist in even the most progressive cultural circles” , and I’d go along with that. If only we had more time to digest these important issues instead of being hurried through them.

Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar is a Queensland Theatre/Melbourne Theatre Company production at the Playhouse Theatre, South Bank until November 6. Photo by Stephen Henry.

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