A timely play about America, Muslim identity and politics highlights the role of art in an era of social tumult
Art comes out of chaos,” culture critic David L. Ulin — now a fellow at UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute — said at last year’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. “Culture comes out of chaos.” If so, we’re in for some culture-fat times, as the nation’s new political order appears to be a chaos engine: rewriting social norms, destabilizing old certainties and posing fundamental questions about — some would say challenges to — what it means to be an American.
Into this tinderbox Nevada Conservatory Theatre drops its production of Disgraced, a combustible drama by Ayad Akhtar, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Four upscale New Yorkers have dinner: Amir, a thoroughly Americanized Pakistani immigrant who’s rejected his Muslim upbringing; his white wife, an artist whose work employs (appropriates?) Islamic themes; a Jewish art dealer; and his wife, a black woman who’s competing with Amir for a promotion at their law firm. Though domestic in its setting, the play opens up to the world as conflicts emerge about faith, race, extremism, identity and politics. It might have won its Pulitzer four years and a million Trump tweets ago, but it’s as hotly now as a Muslim travel ban.
Raised, too, are more meta questions about the role of art in a time of social upheaval.
After all, NCT could have offered viewers refuge in a bit of comfort theater, like Arsenic and Old Lace; it opted for contentious relevance instead. “I pursued this play,” says director Clarence Gilyard. In a similar vein, this month Cockroach Theatre produces Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning Into Butter, a 1999 play about campus racism and political correctness that also could be ripped from today’s Google news alerts (cockroachtheatre.com). Meanwhile, local artists have been gathering to talk about “art and activism in the Trump era.” Nationally, the think-piece industrial complex has exhaled a constant stream of hot takes on the subject. It’s in the air.
So it seemed a good time to lay a few questions on Gilyard, a professor of acting at UNLV, and Christopher Edwards, NCT’s artistic director. (The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited together for flow, length and clarity.)
ON WHAT DREW THEM TO THE PLAY
Gilyard: I was stunned by the language, by the text, by the intelligence/wit/immediacy of it. Theater is heightened language. It’s poetry at the same time you arrest your disbelief; you lean into it because you’re like, Oh my god, this is really happening — but it’s heightened, it’s got a beauty to it. So I was stunned by it. I realized it was a piece of import. Plus, it was funny.
Edwards: The dialogue sounds like it’s coming from the mouths of people we all know. And obviously the issues it’s dealing with. We picked this play last year when the Black Lives Matter movement was in full swing, the problems with immigration and terrorism — it just felt like the right choice. It is an amazing play, and very current.
Gilyard: Having it come up in the first 100 days of President Trump’s four years is one of those providential situations, I think. That’s important, too, because a lot of times the city doesn’t realize what’s going on in the center of education in the city — we have this major institution with this major theater doing a major work — not an important work, a major work.
ON HOW POLITICAL CONTEXT CHANGES THE PRODUCTION
Gilyard: That question I addressed in probably the second design meeting: Are we going to bring the audience into a play that’s right off the streets, right now — could we just take all the bleachers and put them outside, in a metaphorical sense? Or are we going to tell a stylized fable and let the audience think, make the connections? Which is better? Which is theater? Which is more important?
You (indicating Desert Companion) already do the first. That’s not my job. My job is to create a piece of art that’s unsettling, that’s funny, that charges you to leave that space going, Why am I feeling this way? What was that? What’s going on with me now?
Edwards: There will always be people who say, “Oh, you’re only doing this play because conflict, racial conflict, cultural conflict, is trendy right now.”
Gilyard: (Political discussions with actors) can be germane to the process. But there is no place for the massaging of particular politics in the creation if it doesn’t manifest itself on the stage. If you want to talk about it, it’s got to be in the pursuit of the character, in the pursuit of the relationship under the circumstances that Mr. Akhtar has written. So it’s part of my job to teach that to young actors — to make them understand that if you’re not going to turn that political position, that religious position, into something that’s on the stage, what’s it for?
ON AUDIENCE RESPONSE
Edwards: I hope we do have a strong response. In this world of trigger warnings, theater is supposed to trigger something. I love it when people come out and say, “I hated that because of this, this and this, and I’m gonna go home and talk to my wife about it.” That’s what I want. I don’t want them to hate it. But I do want them to leave the theater incensed, changed, inspired or something. Please, bring it home with you for a little while.
Gilyard: Now you’ll see how the human being responds to information. Are they open to embracing what they’ve seen? Are they able to see what they’ve seen? Or are they just gonna say, “Well, this is how I feel about that word or that subject or the fact that he did that to her.” Wait — is that what you really saw? Is that really what’s going on between these people? Is that why she did what she did? Let’s go back and really look at why she did what she did. That’s the power of theater and the talk-back (feedback sessions conducted after select performances).
Edwards: I think we’re responsible to create that dialogue.
Gilyard: There’ll be this NRA, right-wing person who goes, “Well, there you go.” And there’ll be this African-American cohort that’s, “That’s right, sister, that’s how I feel about that!” There’ll be all of those wonderful things, which is, in a sense, what the play’s about. It’s saying, all of these things are not converging. All of these people not converging. They’re actually colliding. Nobody’s listening. Right? Which I think is the brilliance of the play. Because for us to be vulnerable about these issues would probably, I posit, bring resolution. But. It takes my breath away for us to be vulnerable.
Edwards: I’m still trying to get a sense of the Las Vegas community and how they feel about things like this. This community is still trying to find itself along these lines. This is a community that’s used to going to a theater to be entertained. Not everybody, but many people here go to see shows the way they’d go to dinner and order their steak. They only want medium-rare: “I only want to see shows that don’t challenge what I already believe.” I think sometimes that can be problematic. I don’t think that moving forward — going back to the political climate — that we’re ever going to get better as a society unless we challenge ourselves to think outside of our own little boxes.
ON WHETHER THE ROLE OF ART CHANGES IN TIMES OF TURMOIL
Gilyard: Never has. Art, a mentor taught me, is always political. Always. It always has been, always will be.
But if you really do the fine plays, you’re dangerous. Your theater is dangerous — in the right way. In a positive way. Because you’re telling the truth.
Edwards: I can dislike black people, Mexican people, Latino people, Middle Eastern people if I don’t know them or don’t have any contextualization of their story. It’s easy to hate when you don’t know the story. I think it’s our job to help shed light on the story and show that things aren’t actually black and white. That there’s complexity, and in that complexity is where our humanity comes out. Sometimes it’s the beautiful hypocrisy of humankind — that we can give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, and admit we’re not perfect, but we can’t give it to our fellow man; it’s an immigrant, a person of a different color, a different religion. So I think that’s what we need to do.
Gilyard: Art is a necessary component of a healthy society. ... Art’s the truth. It’s dangerous. You let your son watch a show, and he identifies with that character’s journey, that dramatic journey — you’ve got problems in your house. (Laughter) Because you may not be ready for how the human being in that formative stage takes on that information, begins to dream and wants to manifest that dream. What’re you gonna do?
Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar, March 31-April 9, 7:30p and 2p, Ham Hall, UNLV, $16.50, unlv.edu/calendar
From KNPR's State of Nevada: Modern Culture And Islamic Faith Explored In "Disgraced"