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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia
Singapore Repertory Theatre

Losing My Religion: “Disgraced” by SRT

By Akanksha Raja

(1000 words, 8-minute read)

Disgraced_SRT_set
“Disgraced” post-show discussion, 22 November

When SRT Artistic Director Gaurav Kripalani revealed that the Media Development Authority approved of Disgraced without making any edits to the script, in answer to a question about censorship, there was an audible gasp from the audience at the post-show dialogue on 22 November. Regulatory authorities are known to be protective of religious sentiments, curtailing content that has the potential to upset a religious group. And Ayad Akhtar’s 2012 Pulitzer prize-winning play doesn’t hold back on incendiary statements about religion.

Disgraced centres around a dinner party discussion between four different Americans: Amir Kapoor,  a lapsed Muslim of South Asian origin, Emily, his white, blonde American wife, Jory, his African-American colleague and her Jewish husband, Isaac. They are all well-educated, upper-class, wealthy, and seem to get along well. As the evening grows darker, however, repressed animosity threatens to boil over.

Amir (Kripalani) is a successful New York lawyer, who has worked hard to dissociate himself from his Muslim roots, going so far as to change his name from ‘Abdullah’ to Kapoor. But his past catches up on him when he decides, after much reluctance and coaxing from his nephew Abe Jensen (née Hussein Malik, played by Ghafir Akbar) and wife Emily, to help an imam imprisoned for reportedly mishandling mosque funds.

Emily (Jennifer Coombs) is an artist who is deeply inspired by Islamic aesthetics and spirituality. There’s an interesting contrast between husband and wife, in that he frequently vilifies the religion – dismissing the Quran as a “hate mail to humanity” – while his wife is enamoured by all the “beauty and wisdom” she sees in it. This contrast points to the possibility that his marriage to Emily is based on, maybe compensating for, his inability to accept his Muslim upbringing. Near the end of the play, as his marriage crumbles, Amir tells his wife “I wanted you to be proud you were with me.” It’s clear that while Amir wanted to disidentify himself from his Muslim roots, he just as deeply wanted to retain pride for it, and this inner anxiety leads to his undoing as the play unfolds.

The second act opens to the discovery that a newspaper article about the imam’s case quotes Kapoor as being “in support” of him, mentioning the lawyer’s Muslim roots. Kapoor’s superior Mort, prior to this revelation, presumably believed him to be Hindu (indicated by his gift of an idol of Shiva that stands on the living room mantelpiece, looking ridiculous considering nobody in the house is Hindu.) Kapoor is not granted a promotion, although it is unclear whether this is only because of his lack of transparency and falsification of his origins on official records, or a result of the Islamophobic discrimination he worked so hard to avoid.

Kapoor realises the impossibility of extricating his career from his assigned identity as a Muslim, despite his own efforts to hide his family background and his denouncement of the religion. The fateful evening begins with him breaking a glass of scotch in indignation. As the night progresses, this frustration escalates to alarming point when, significantly intoxicated, he admits to feeling proud after the 9/11 attacks. If the matter with the imam and the article which outed him shows him the futility of hiding his roots, his response is to run to the other extreme of feeling inordinate pride for it: a sense of belonging that he claims “is tribal. It’s in the bones. You have to work real hard to root that shit out.”

Catalysing the play’s denouement are Isaac (Daniel Jenkins) and Jory (LaNisa Frederick). Isaac is a curator interested in Emily’s work, and the evening starts celebratory with the announcement that he will include her paintings in an upcoming exhibition. The mood goes downhill after an argument between the men about religion and Jory’s disclosure to Amir that she was given partnership of the law firm despite his longer work experience. This discovery leads Amir, already in a fragile state, to feel even more victimised – he, a brown man, ought to have some advantage in being given career opportunities over a black woman. In his resignation to the fact that the society he lives in will always malign him for his Muslim origins, he proceeds to manifest the worst behaviour he has confusedly associated the religion with: spitting on Isaac as his own mother spit on him, and later hitting his wife, not long after having criticised the Quran for, in his perspective, encouraging that very act. This violence results from the revelation of Emily and Isaac’s affair, a plot line that seems pointless, except that it does illustrate the weakness in Amir and Emily’s marriage: as Isaac points out to Emily, being married to someone who hasn’t accepted himself will continually lead her to other men.

“Disgraced” set design by James Button

All this foregrounds the set, an elegant Manhattan apartment with a minimalist grey-white colour scheme that is only interrupted by one of Emily’s Islamic-geometrical inspired painting hanging above the fireplace. The American actresses pull off their roles convincingly, but Jenkins’ and Kripalani’s, which called for more anger and violence, were slightly weakened by the tenuousness of their unnatural American accents.

Despite revolving around the main character’s grievances with Islam, the play isn’t meant to be an indictment of religion; while religion is the crux of the matter, the story is not about religion itself, but about people, and how unreconciled inner conflicts and prejudices can jeopardise personal and professional lives.

There is no neat ending to the play, and that is its point. There are no tidy solutions to global conflict, and contentious ideologies warped with violence, but as the play warns, so long as these matters are left unresolved, the personal cost is high for all involved. The play was written by Ayad Akhtar in 2012 in USA, but in the wake of increased Islamophobia and xenophobia following elections in the US, there couldn’t be a more relevant timing for such a provocative work that commands analysis and interrogation.

 

Selected reviews of SRT’s Disgraced

“Theatre review: Disgraced” by Adibah Isa (Buro 24/7)
“Review: Disgraced by SRT” (bakchormeeboy)
“Lessons for a divided society” by Akshita Nanda (The Straits Times)
“Swimming against the tide of circumstance” by Helmi Yusof (The Business Times)
“Low Octane: SRT’s Disgraced” by Matt Lyon (ArtsEquator)


Disgraced runs at the KC Arts Centre – Home of SRT until 9 December. More information.

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