Gasps in Five Places

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Playwright, actor, and novelist Ayad Akhtar says everything he writes is an homage to a high school English teacher who changed his life. Because of her, he immersed himself in the European modernists she loved, so much so that he thought being the best writer he could meant imitating them rather than discovering his own voice. A Pakistani-American who grew up in Wisconsin, Akhtar ran away from his heritage until he finally realized that he didn't necessarily want to be the next T.S. Eliot or Bertolt Brecht. He wanted to connect with readers and tell vivid, absorbing stories. The catalyst for this change? Failure, he says.

“It was awful writing that nobody liked, and I would try a different version, and it was just as bad or bad in a different way,” Akhtar said. “Progress was coming to acquire craft over time. I wanted to be a writer since I was 15 — I'm 44 now. I've been doing this for 29 years now, and the first 17? Really poorly.”

Akhtar certainly seems to have hit his stride telling stories closer to home, like his 2012 novel, American Dervish, about a Pakistani-American boy in Milwaukee coming to terms with his identity; and screenplays including the 2005 The War Within, about a man planning a terrorist attack on New York, which Akhtar also starred in. (He's currently working on a screenplay for an HBO movie about it.) Akhtar's Disgraced, which comes to Berkeley Repertory Theatre this month, is the most produced play of 2015-16 and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. A look at a Pakistani-American lawyer named Amir who lives on the Upper East Side and hopes to become partner at his firm, Disgraced deals with the complexities of identity and prejudices in post-9/11 New York, and comes to a head at a tempestuous dinner party that Amir and his artist wife host.

Akhtar says there was something about the character of Amir that made him want to write a play —his first — rather than a novel or screenplay.

“I suddenly was in the presence of a character who seemed to have his own life and his own voice, and I was just following him,” Akhtar said. “There was something about Amir's voice, speaking. It felt like it was about him talking in some way.”

That voice has gotten strong reactions. Akhtar says the audience always gasps at about five places in the play — and he has gotten all sorts of responses, from people telling him how brilliant it is, to people thinking it justified the 9/11 attacks. He considers the play to be a sort of litmus test.

“I don't think the play tells you anything about Muslims, really, because it tells you contradictory things,” he said. “It doesn't tell you anything about America other than that we can't seem to get along, which everyone knows already. Where do you sit in the not-getting-along? Do you think there's a problem or not? Do you think that guy is complaining or does he have a real gripe? All those questions you have to grapple with yourself, because the play has not told you.”

This level of provocation makes Disgraced a good fit for Berkeley Rep's audience, or so artistic director Tony Taccone thinks. He calls Akhtar, whose next play, Junk, deals with the economy, a leading thinker whose theatrical revelations aren't cheap.

“Ayad is shocking, but it's earned,” Taccone said. “It feels like it's coming out of the character. It's like when Oedipus yanks his eyes out — it's shocking, but you feel like if you were in that situation, it might be just the way to go.”

The director, Kimberly Senior, has been working with Akhtar for the past three years. She can hardly restrain herself when talking about him.

“He's incredibly direct and articulate and at the same time, open and collaborative,” she said. “He's so present in his writing and as a person, and can go from the highbrow to the lowbrow so easily. We have enough in common that we work together really well, but there are enough differences that he always challenges me.”

Senior's just as enthusiastic about Disgraced.

“I have never before or since felt so strongly about a play —that it is mine, that I had to direct it,” she said. “I had never read a play that felt so contemporary and like it was moving our culture forward. He has this action-driven style, and he wasn't afraid to write characters smarter than we are. The dialogue flows realistically about confronting identity in a diaspora culture. This is why we go to theater —it's like the Greeks, who thought theater was about teaching you how to live. This is a manual for living.”

For his part, Akhtar wants to make sure he isn't seen as the voice of all Muslim Americans, as some people expect him to be.

“Artists are never spokesmen,” he said. “At their best, I think they ask questions of us. And hopefully give us some pleasure in the process.”

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