Play About Clash Between Islam and West Carries Poignant Message in Israel

'Disgraced' depicts the struggle between oppressor and oppressed, and has local equivalents in the painful points of encounter between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi or between Jew and Arab.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Ruth Asrasai and Amos Tamam in 'Disgraced.'
Ruth Asrasai and Amos Tamam in 'Disgraced.' Credit: Gerard Alon
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

“Disgraced,” a Cameri Theater production of a play by Ayad Akhtar, an American writer of Pakistani origin, premiered in Chicago in 2012, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the following year. It offers a vivid portrayal of the complex situation in which the West is threatened by extremist Islam, creating a feeling of “barbarians at the gates.” The play probes with intelligence and sensitivity the open wounds of Islam-West, Muslim-American, Jewish-American, artist-curator, male-female, Jews-Muslims, blacks-whites, religion-culture and master-slave relations in America.

As Kfir Azulay the director of the Cameri version notes in the program, the play’s subject is less “the West and Islam,” focusing more on internal identity conflicts. These are conveyed primarily through the play’s central character, Amir Kapoor, a successful New York lawyer who hopes to be made a partner in the law firm for which he works. The son of Pakistan-born parents, he is a declared enemy of Islam and refuses to view it as a “culture” that has been perverted by extremists, because he knows deep down that what makes it fearful is its destructive totality.

“Disgraced” is a work that is right – albeit not easy – for viewing here and now in Israel, because the pairs I listed above, each of which reflects a different stage in the eternal struggle between threatener and threatened, or between oppressor and oppressed, have local equivalents in the painful points of encounter between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi or between Jew and Arab.

Amir, who is Middle Eastern in appearance, is a fierce and uncompromising critic of Islam, in the name of universal American values. He is married to Emily, a white-skinned American artist who lauds the artistic and cultural values of Islam, which the West discarded from the start of the Renaissance. She needs the recognition of a curator in a prestigious museum – Isaac, a Jew, who falls in love with her and accepts her Islam-influenced artistic approach. Isaac’s wife, a black-skinned lawyer named Jory, is Amir’s colleague and friend, but only one of them can become a partner in their Jewish-American law firm in New York.

Into this world comes Amir’s nephew, who arrived in the United States from Pakistan as a boy; he changed his name from Hussein to Abe, but continued to frequent the mosque. He asks Amir, the successful lawyer, to come to the aid of his imam who has been arrested for the content of his preaching. Contrary to his worldview, Amir accedes to the request because of his love for his “enlightened” wife. As a result, he becomes an object of suspicion in the all-American milieu into which he wants to assimilate.

Charged issues

The play’s centerpiece is a dinner attended by the two couples in which Amir, who is threatened from the outside by his workplace environment, which is suspicious of all things Muslim, has too much to drink and confesses, rather naively, to the existence of dark areas (of a Muslim character) within him, against which he is trying to struggle. In this sense, even though he ends the play defeated, he is braver than the other characters: He is aware of and admits to his passions and destructive emotions, which are part genetics, part ideology, part religion, part blood and part politics – but refuses to yield to them. Nor is he prepared to adopt them (like his nephew Hussein-Abe) or “neutralize” them through the intellect (as his wife, Emily, the curator Isaac and his wife Jory do).

The play demands concentration and attentiveness from both audience and cast, as the issues at stake are complex, highly charged, tricky and elusive. By the same token, the play demands of the director, the designers and the actors the ability to summon up and manipulate emotion, particularly when all the identity conflicts explode into interpersonal violence, fueled by gender relations, relations between friends and by the ethnic tangle of the characters.

The Cameri Theater production is a searing emotional experience, thanks in part to the set and costume design by Polina Adamov. The characters’ clothes are splendidly designed and so is Amir and Emily’s apartment, with furnishings that include iconic objects (the McIntosh chairs reminiscent of the Twin Towers). The thoughtful directions given the actors make proper use of the characters’ powerful and destructive energies.

But the viewer’s experience derives above all from the distinctive personality of the actors, whose private stories as people also enter into their praiseworthy performances. All of them are immigrants or the children of immigrants, not unusual in Israel, and each of them is singularly suited to the character he/she portrays. Eran Mor, as Hussein-Abe, creates a vivid episodic role as a kind of exemplification of the almost inevitable radicalization process of one who is both threatening and rejected. The German-born Sara von Schwarze, who arrived in Israel as a child, is Emily, the enlightened American artist who defends Islamic culture ardently; she is womanly, mature, hurting, confused, vulnerable, battered. Ruth Asrasai, of Ethiopian origin but an Israeli in every fiber of her highly energetic being, possesses terrific comic and dramatic timing and a self-confident presence as befits Jory, a woman who “sprang from the ghetto” and is capable of hurting and being hurt. Micha Selektar, as Isaac, covers the fragments of his identity with articulate intellectualization, not an easy task for this highly emotive actor. And Amos Tamam, who was born in Ramle, on the Israeli periphery, is riveting as Amir as he plunges into the dizzy depths of the conflicted and courageous consciousness of someone who is willing to look at the world from the darkness of his soul, and not deny the demons in it.

The Cameri Theater’s Hall 3 allows the viewer to be very close to the events unfolding on the stage. One only hopes that the play’s ideological aspect – which is intended for those who are proficient in articulation, attentiveness and thoughtfulness – will not prevent viewers from taking one step back to see how the play directs them to gaze into the dark parts of their souls, too – not to deny them or yield to them (two easy temptations), but to struggle with them so that we can all live in a society worthy of being lived in.

The next performances of “Disgraced” at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv will be on Jan. 21 and Jan. 25 at 21.00; Jan. 22 at 12.00, 21.00; Jan. 23 at 18.30, 21.00

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