• Art
  • Hardly a disgrace


Hardly a disgrace

Pakistani American playwright Ayad Akhtar's phenomenally-written "Disgraced" hits Theater am Kurfürstendamm starting Mar 2. How did the Pulitzer prize-winning play pan out on stage in City West? Does it go off with a bang or is it disgraceful?

Image for Hardly a disgrace
Photo by Katarina Ivanisevic

Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced gets a German translation at Theater am Kurfürstendamm starting March 2 at 20:00.

It’s an odd mix hanging around the bar at the premiere of Disgraced. Shermin Langhoff, Gorki Theater intendent and champion of post-migratory theatre, is here. There are also the old-school Wessis you might expect on Kurfürstendamm: perfect white coifs, Chanel pumps and matching handbag. Which is to say that the German translation of Ayad Akhtar’s play running at Theater am Kurfürstendamm speaks, somehow, to an incredibly wide range of Berliners, mirroring its popularity worldwide.

It’s a real playwright’s play, in the same “elite Americans go unhinged” tradition of God of Carnage and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. It’s funny-painful; the diverse cast of characters is inclusive and nuanced. No surprise, then, that Disgraced gained Akhtar a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony nod.

The very existence of this production raises a different question: how do you come to grips with challenging themes in mainstream German theatre? How does this distinctly post-9/11 American drama play in Berlin, where the politics of assimilation are so different?

Akhtar has made a career of creating flawed Muslim-American characters grappling with their identities, and Disgraced’s ambivalence about code-switching could have come across as too raw for international audiences. But somehow, the heterogeneity of the audience and polyphony of the play itself prevent it.

The climax is a dinner party hosted by the protagonist, Amir, a Pakistani-American corporate lawyer who has turned away from his Muslim upbringing and now worships at the altar of $600 shirts. His white wife, Emily, stumps for the Quran, while the abstract Islamic themes of her paintings have drawn her close to Jewish Whitney Museum curator Isaac. Isaac’s African-American wife Jory is a partner at Amir’s firm: turns out they are both up for the same promotion. The couples start talking about religion and politics. Guess what happens.

Except, of course, that the writing is so good. But this production doesn’t quite know what to do with it. The director and the role of Emily have been re-placed somewhat last-minute, and it shows, from dropped lines to staccato pacing.

The actors seem not-quite-at-home with one another, a discomfort that doesn’t sit well in such an already-uncomfortable space. A bit of flubbed fight choreography was especially ruinous. Disgraced should feel like a powder keg – and hopefully, by this point in the run, it does. 

GEÄCHTET (Disgraced) Mar 2-5, 9-12, 16-19, 23-26, 20:00; Mar 6, 13, 20, 27, 18:00 (English surtitles on Saturdays) | Theater am Kurfürstendamm, Kurfürstendamm 206, Charlottenburg, U-Bhf Uhlandstraße

Originally published in issue #147, March 2016.