By Eric Clay
Provocative theater, like earnest worship, should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. When provocative theater and earnest worship succeed, they compel us to work together across our differences in power and identity, ignorance and hate, so that we can better face our human condition without flinching. We begin to move, ever so slightly, toward each other with kindness to address common challenges. This is the work that is never finished.
“Disgraced” (a play by Ayag Akhtar, recently on stage at the Hangar Theatre) is a powerful play, with a compelling performance, built on the very stereotypes and prejudices that we wish we could tame, or at least hide, yet we never fully escape – stereotypes of the good life, affluence and privilege, immigrant achievement, the black professional woman, the aspiring artist, the corporate lawyer, black, brown, and white, the Jew, Muslim, and secularist. These stereotypes allow the characters, and us, to simplify our lives, gradually dumbing down our capacity for complexity and mutual responsibility. The show mirrors our recent history.
Each character is drawn with such care as to capture both the stereotype we love and the one we hate. We careen from hilarity to horror. As a Manhattan drama, we miss stereotypes of the proselytizing atheist, the Evangelical Christian, the committed underachiever; but they, too, lurk in the background. This is a play for urbane America, now.
Each character’s aspirations have already been betrayed by American market secularism and by reactionary religion. Betrayed and marginalized, they pursue personal achievement. But the good life escapes their grasp. At the center of the play is a shallow, liberal multi-culturalism. This obliging diversity masks tremendous vulnerability and inauthenticity.
The characters never carefully examine their own motives, the good they seek or the evil they are capable of committing. They never take responsibility for the rage they provoke or the offhand ways in which they destroy each other’s dreams and aspirations. Without an anchor in mature adulthood these characters are fragile. Without the resilience of mature faith expressed in secular or religious practice, their shallow, self-serving carelessness ends in violence.
The play captivates, but it does not comfort. Understandably, it frightens some who care about accurate representations of Islam, religion or secularism, because it may appear to endorse stereotypes.
Comfort may emerge much later, long after the play is over, as each member of the audience takes greater responsibility for addressing the shallow, thoughtless, self-serving behavior that we all, to one degree or another, indulge in. We are those characters. If you think you are fair, balanced and beyond prejudice or stereotype, this play is designed to afflict you – to shake you out of your more deeply guarded prejudices.
This play packs the same sort of visceral punch that the election of Donald Trump did. But this play is from and for affluent and aspiring liberals, to challenge us from within. It is a wake-up call for more open, honest and morally complex relationships. We do ourselves a great service as we let some of our deepest assumptions get challenged.
We cannot unwrite this play; we cannot unwrite our prejudices or our stereotypes.
We do not see ourselves as we are. We have too high or too low an opinion of ourselves. When we have too high an opinion, we take advantage of others. When we have too low an opinion, we let others take advantage of us. Most of the time, we aren’t even aware of what we are doing. This is iniquity or sin. Not a popular topic for mainstream theater. But bias is.
We are all disgraced. Pursuing grace is one clear answer to our dilemma. We can approach the play, and our lives, with an unself-conscious, eyes-wide open attitude, recognizing that human beings are flawed and embedded with a fair dose of good as well as evil. We can choose maturity in secular, spiritual and religious practice. With respect each other, we can find our way into more whole and honest relationships.
As we move from “Disgraced” to grace, no one is without guilt, and no one is wholly responsible, but we discover what each of us may do to improve our all too human condition.
Several groups have stepped in to facilitate ongoing consideration of the material in this play.
The Hangar Theatre sponsored guided discussions following each performance facilitated by local scholars sponsored in part by the Episcopal Church at Cornell University.
On July 5 at 7 p.m., at 111 E. Seneca St. in Ithaca, the Islamic Community Outreach Services will host a discussion of the play and the issues it raises informed by a less stereotyped understanding of Islam. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Shared Journeys will be hosting small groups of no more than 5-6 participants to address the issues raised by the play and our individual and collective response. Email email@example.com for more information.
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Eric Clay facilitates, coaches, and counsels groups and individuals addressing differences and conflicts. He hosts the Made of Clay Report on WRFI 88.1FM.