West Virginia University’s Lab Theatre continues to impress with a powerful and moving production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Disgraced,” by Ayad Akhtar last weekend.
What began as a couple of student actors’ passion project came to life and blossomed in the light of its meaningful message and the honest way the actors, and by extension the characters, gave that message. There is only one set, five characters and a brief linear timeline, but within those parameters is a very complex and well-crafted world in which these people really live and really have opinions on issues of great importance. The director, junior BFA theatre student Nativa Kesecker, defined the play’s major theme of identity in her director’s notes in the program. She wrote, “At the end of the day you define who you are, and that can be as intimidating and invasive as an outsider trying to do it for you.”
These words echoed throughout the theatre as “Disgraced” took action under the stage lights. Akhtar’s play tells the story of Amir, played by Afsheen Misaghi, a Pakistani lawyer of Islamic descent who has worked laboriously to shed his past and culture in order to make a place for himself in what American society has allowed to become a white man’s world. His artist wife Emily, portrayed by Allison Chester, has grown to love the beauty of Islamic history and art and its inspirational effect on her work. Amir is uncomfortable with this and continually voices his opposition to her attraction to the culture.
This is only the beginning of the conflict, however, as Emily eventually convinces Amir to appear at a trial as a favor to his nephew, which leads him on his path to destruction. He is quoted in the newspaper, and his backgroundcomes under question at his firm. As his life begins falling apart around him, Amir is hurt internally when his wife betrays him. The events culminate, with Amir revealing his warped opinions on his culture and himself, eventually being driven to a violent outbreak that destroys the last solid piece of his relationship and his career.
Each character in “Disgraced” is beautifully flawed, and the way the text attacks those flaws is how the plot moves forward. The human relationships between the actors were so vibrant that those watching could reach out and touch it. This life is what really fortified the meaning and kept the argument hanging above the audience’s head for the entire 90-minute
Senior BFA theatre student Chester was the one who pushed this project from the beginning of WVU’s spring Lab Theatre season. She had read the play in her Contemporary Drama class in the fall and was immediately struck with its significance to her.
“We read it a week before the Paris attacks, and the message was still powerful from when I first read it. I went to Jim (Knipple) and told him that we had to do this show,” Chester said. “This message of acceptance and Islam and everything, this show needs to be seen now.”
Her intensity toward the show was shared by others, and so it got the opportunity to be performed on the Vivian Davis Michael stage. Kesecker, who had read the play in class with Chester, was approached to direct. This was her first time taking the director’s seat, but it was hard to tell.
“Having this opportunity, I wanted to figure out what it means to be a director and explore that side of the theatre,” Kesecker said. “Starting with ‘Disgraced’ was something that made me nervous. I wanted to do this play justice. But all of us came together as a collaborative team, and eventually we all found the same final vision and learned a lot from this play.”
Amir’s self-loathing is something all of us can relate to in some way. We may not be ostracized or profiled because of race or religion, but we may feel persecuted in some way that leads us to look negatively at ourselves. Akhtar’s play reminds the audience that loving yourself comes first, and walking this path is the only way in which we can learn to love others.