WBEZ | Ayad Akhtar http://www.wbez.org/tags/ayad-akhtar Latest from WBEZ Chicago Public Radio en Stereotypes on parade http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2012-02-10/stereotypes-parade-96244 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/photo/2012-February/2012-02-10/_msb2696.jpeg" alt="" /><p><p>The good news is that Chicago theaters are trying to grapple with the issue of race this season (so much, by the way, for the notion that America would somehow become “post-racial” after the election of President Obama). The bad news is that failed efforts on the topic tend to reinforce stereotypes, leaving audience members more firmly entrenched than ever in the positions they held when they walked in the theater.</p><p>And there’s every possibility that what I have to say about three recent onstage attempts to deal with race and racism reflects nothing more than my being more firmly entrenched than ever in my original position. Nonetheless:<br> <br> David Mamet's <em>Race </em>at the Goodman is a clever meditation on euphemisms, and would make a very good essay on that subject. It's not, however, much of a play: Act I addresses the question of whether a wealthy white man raped a black woman, whereas Act II focuses on whether a junior&nbsp;black woman lawyer betrayed her white male supervisors. I can see there's supposed to be a parallel of betrayal here, but it doesn't work. Instead we have a play without a plot, or characters, really (they're embodied positions and prejudices instead). Chuck Smith's direction is true to the scripts: He makes each of the performances as hard-edged and un-nuanced as it can possibly be, so that Mamet's point is clear as day. And he gives due emphasis to the best line in the play. Apparently cleared of betrayal, the young woman chides her superiors: "The silver spoon disappeared and you fired the maid." The rest of the dialog just replaces Mamet's well-known penchant for profanity with racial and sexual epithets, and this does not constitute progress. It just seems like the kid in school who got laughs by saying "doody-head." Not Mamet's finest hour.<br> <br> <iframe allowfullscreen="" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/v9n7cuJl3Ds" width="560" frameborder="0" height="315"></iframe></p><p><em>Disgraced</em> by Ayad Akhtar at American Theater Company does even less to turn ideas into characters, and while its plot structure is clearer than Mamet’s double-helix construction the clarity serves only to reveal how formulaic it is. I wasn’t offended by the portrayal of the characters because I didn’t believe in any of them, and I certainly didn’t believe in their interactions. A very lapsed Muslim lawyers is married to a white artist preoccupied with Islamic art. His law partner (a black woman) is married to her agent (a Jewish man). Ostensibly, these couples are close friends, but they sit down to dinner and discuss race, ethnicity, religion and prejudice as if they’d never considered or discussed these issues before, and the results of this single conversation are so devastating that our protagonist reverts to his religious Muslim roots and beats his wife unconscious. Once again, the director–-in this case Kimberly Senior–-does what she can with the material, and the actors are obviously making earnest efforts to turn these puppets into people, but what we’re left with is either a set of hideous stereotypes–-the greedy Jew, the animalistic brown man, and so on–-or a sense that the entire issue is insoluble and therefore not worth talking about. I doubt this was the playwright’s intention.<br> <br> It may be that the difficulty with both plays is that they’re too short: <em>Disgraced</em> runs 90 minutes and <em>Race</em> just a bit more than 100. Each seems to suffer from the absence of scenes which might have enlarged the characters or better explained the internal dynamics of the groups being examined. Jonathan and I will discuss the costs and benefits of this recent trend towards bare-bones plays on <em>848</em> next Friday, February 17. &nbsp;</p><p><img alt="" class="caption" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2012-February/2012-02-10/_msb2696.jpeg" style="width: 600px; height: 400px;" title="Sally Murphy in 'Time Stands Still' at Steppenwolf"><br> <br> On the other hand, <em>Time Stands Still </em>at Steppenwolf manages to offer caricatures in lieu of characters despite having two full acts and an all-white cast. Playwright Donald Margulies seems to want to tell us the story of white war correspondents who (depending on your perspective) draw necessary attention to or leach off of the suffering of black and brown people around the world; but no sooner has he raised this issue than he shifts his focus to male-female relationships, or rather to the ways in which a Good Woman puts husband and children ahead of everything and a Bad Woman thinks about other things. Bright career woman Sarah turns out to be incapable of love, while dim-bulb stay-at-home mom Mandy turns out to represent all that is good and true in the world. This is a fantasy characteristic of middle-aged Jewish men but I’m sorry to encounter it in Margulies, who is a throughtful and skilled playwright when he’s not busy grinding an axe against feminism. Austin Pendleton might have gotten more humor out of the script but the cast, led by Sally Murphy, does fine work. The problem is the play itself, which seems like a box of Crackerjack without a prize: enjoyable while it’s going on but ultimately empty and completely disposable. Suffice it to say I saw the original production in New York with Laura Linney and didn’t remember that fact until a few key gestures triggered my&nbsp; memory. This makes sense: Why remember the umpteenth iteration of a stereotype?</p></p> Fri, 10 Feb 2012 14:00:00 -0600 http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2012-02-10/stereotypes-parade-96244 Usman Ally on identity politics in ATC's 'Disgraced' http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2012-02-08/usman-ally-identity-politics-atcs-disgraced-96199 <img typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/photo/2012-February/2012-02-08/disgraced_ATC.jpg" alt="" /><p><p><img alt="" src="http://llnw.wbez.org/blog/insert-image/2012-February/2012-02-08/usman ally.jpg" style="margin-right: 10px; margin-top: 10px; margin-bottom: 10px; float: left; width: 300px; height: 275px;" title="">“Being Muslim these days is like being public enemy number one,” says actor Usman Ally. “Our voices are not being heard.”</p><p>“In a way, it’s a dangerous play,” he says of Ayad Akhtar’s <a href="http://www.atcweb.org/"><em>Disgraced</em>, which had its world premiere at American Theater Company</a> last month. At a dinner party, every imaginable prejudice gets laid on the table by corporate lawyer Amir (played by Ally), his blond American wife, a Jewish gallery owner, and his African-American wife, also a lawyer. But that danger, Ally says, “has brought us as a cast together.”</p><p>An ATC ensemble member, Ally has experienced some irrational reactions to earlier performances as a Muslim. He played an Indian-American character, VP, in <a href="http://www.victorygardens.org/onstage/chad-deity-reviews.php">Victory Gardens’ <em>The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity</em></a>—another “incendiary” show, he says, that toured to New York and L.A.</p><p>“Audience members would come up to me afterwards and call me a terrorist—even though I was playing a spoof of a terrorist! Because my character was multilingual, they’d tell me, ‘I think everyone in this country should be speaking English.’ They directed their political outrage at me.”</p><p>Muslims’ reactions after seeing <em>Disgraced</em>, Ally says, have varied a lot. “Some were like, ‘This is so important that this play is being done, because Muslims need to think about this sort of stuff, too.’ Others were just outraged because they thought it would fuel more of the negative stereotyping of Muslims in this country.”</p><p>A violent scene between Amir and his wife sparked a lot of conversation among the cast, playwright Akhtar, and director Kimberly Senior--Ally says it went through 17 iterations. Though originally scripted to take place onstage, it’s now a noisy offstage altercation, a decision Ally approves of partly because it’s “more gut-wrenching to imagine what’s going on.”&nbsp;</p><p>“My biggest fear, to be honest,” he says, “was that if the audience sees a large, dark-skinned man beating a small white woman, they will turn on him.” Everyone involved in <em>Disgraced</em> has had to tread a fine line between acknowledging the validity of ethnic stereotypes—and reinforcing them.&nbsp;</p><p>“There is anti-Semitism in the Muslim community,” says Ally. “Everything that Amir says—whether it’s about his mother, who tells him he’ll end up with a Jewish girl ‘over my dead body,’ or whether he’s saying white women are whores—those ideas are not pervasive, but it’s there. I heard it growing up, not from my parents but from people in the community. [Playwright] Ayad heard it as well.”</p><p style="text-align: center;"><img alt="" class="caption" src="http://www.wbez.org/sites/default/files/blog/insert-image/2012-February/2012-02-08/disgraced%20Ally%2C%20Arenas%2C%20Stark%2C%20Foster%20-%20V.jpg" style="width: 600px; height: 432px;" title="A scene from American Theater Company's 'Disgraced.' (Courtesy of ATC)"></p><p>Ally, 29, was raised in a Muslim family originally from Pakistan, where he lived for about a year when he was 10. But he was born in Swaziland and grew up in Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania. After living in Africa for 18 years, Ally moved to the States to attend college, then got an MFA in theater. “Especially in our culture and community,” he says, “it was like, ‘You’re going all the way to America so you can sing and dance?’”</p><p>Ally says his parents come from “a very, very humble background.” His mother’s family “had to leave everything behind when they were forced from their homes” after the India/Pakistan partition. His father was raised in a small, impoverished village outside Islamabad but eventually got a master’s degree in economics and became, Ally says, “involved in trade between African countries—textiles and things of that sort.”</p><p>Like his character, Ally is married to a white American. “It was neither of our intentions to fall in love,” he says. “But we did. And people will project certain ideas onto us—we have to battle that quite a bit.”</p><p>“I always identified as a Muslim as a child and as a young adult. But practicing the dogma of religion was never something that my parents enforced on us. They said, ‘You are Muslim—that means that you should be good to people.’” He learned Arabic well enough to read the Koran but never understood what he was saying. During Ramadan, he’d sometimes fast, sometimes not.</p><p>Also like his character, Ally has clearly learned to negotiate cultures of all kinds. “I believe that my identity is porous,” he says. “I should be willing to allow my identity to shift and change based on what I experience in my life. But it’s all rooted in who I was. I start off from where I was, and I work from there.”</p><p>“But Amir has literally divorced himself from who he was, and it’s all brand-new. It’s based in nothing. He’s not rooted in anything. He has to whitewash himself in a way. Ayad very succinctly says that the play is about a man identifying with a false sense of self.”</p><p>“Identity is a very American issue—understanding who you are and where you fit in this massive jigsaw puzzle.”</p></p> Wed, 08 Feb 2012 15:44:00 -0600 http://www.wbez.org/blog/onstagebackstage/2012-02-08/usman-ally-identity-politics-atcs-disgraced-96199