When I was a theatre student, I was obsessed with Asian American drama. A common theme tying all the works together was a falsity of the “American Dream” and a twisted self-identity. Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced is no different. The play depicts ex-Muslim and hotshot lawyer Amir as his life is slowly derailed and torn to pieces. A Pulitzer Prize winner in 2013, it was recently produced in Japan for the first time and toured three cities: Tokyo, Nagoya, and my “hometown” of Hyogo.
I couldn’t imagine this play being performed by Japanese people- how could they effectively portray such uniquely American struggles? I had to find out, so when I first saw the flyer for the production I immediately called the theater to book tickets.
About the Play
The entirety of the play takes place in Amir and Emily’s (his wife) Fifth Ave, New York apartment. Emily is an artist, and she draws inspiration from Islamic traditions. She and Amir have conflicting views of the religion. Having been intimately acquainted with it since birth, Amir only sees it as violent and backward; whereas Emily, only knowing Islam as an outsider, is able to see beauty there. The climax occurs during a dinner party when Emily and her Jewish art curator (married to Amir’s black colleague, Jory) are caught kissing.
Disgraced plays upon race dynamics prevalent in American society. Amir, a minority, works to fit himself into the mainstream, white-dominated society by erasing his “brownness.” At every turn he denounces his background, even going so far as to change his name and Social Security Number. However, despite all of this, Amir is never truly accepted into the mainstream and is essentially slapped in the face by it for thinking he was anything more than “brown,” for thinking he wasn’t walking on eggshells.
By drawing upon the audience’s knowledge of race relations (and subsequent feelings towards Muslims in the US), Disgraced can be considered a definitively American play.
So why was a play so dependent upon “American-ness” produced in Japan? What are the connotations of producing such racially charged, challenging material in a foreign country with no minorities on stage?
Why this play? Why Japan?
In English, Disgraced is beautifully written. It doesn’t hit you over the head with what it’s trying to say. It gives background to Islam without over doing it. It’s a finely tuned piece of theatre.
In Japanese, I found that Disgraced had lost some of its finesse. That’s not to say that the translation was bad- I don’t think it was. I just think that the subject matter- 9/11, Islamophobia, etc- makes it hard for Japanese audiences to easily latch on to.
My Japanese host mom from when I studied abroad in Japan saw the show with me. When we left I asked her how she felt after seeing it. She responded, “I’m not sure. It was a little hard to follow.”
It’s understandable- Japan doesn’t have the issues presented in the play to the same degree as the US. I felt a little under-enthused myself; I expected to feel emotionally drained, strung on a thin wire from watching Amir’s emotional distress presented on stage. That never happened, however. Maybe it’s because I’m American and I couldn’t really be immersed in the world of the play just seeing it presented in a foreign language, with clearly foreign individuals acting out the parts? But I think back on other foreign plays I’ve seen in Japan- namely Bent by Martin Sherman- and remember vividly feeling alongside the actors on stage. So maybe it was just poor acting? I don’t think I’ll ever know why I wasn’t affected quite the way I expected- that’s theatre for you.
The director, Tamiya Kuriyama, chose to tackle Disgraced because of his experiences backpacking through the Middle East as a young man. He says in an interview for the show’s program, “Talking about these difficult subjects is normal in America. It’s like if we gathered around the table for dinner and discussed the Okinawa-US military base problem. I think Okinawans would really understand this play. I’m hoping to bring these kinds of topics closer to Japanese audiences by presenting them with this play.” This is a noble reason for doing such a difficult work. It’s a shame that I only felt half of that passion after watching the play.
As a Japanese actor, I believe this work is almost impossible to pull off. In the program’s interview with each actor, it seems that they all logically understood their character’s motivations and struggles. To make those struggles your own, however, is another story. As someone who has never been discriminated against for the color of their skin or for the wrongdoings of others who look like you, it is supremely difficult to portray the self-loathing, the conflicting emotions of minorities in the US.
In the end, I guess I was impressed that Japanese theatre artists even wanted to take on Disgraced. I’m sad that the message of the play literally got “lost in translation.” I’m glad that people went to see it, even if it was just to see the famous actors in it. I hope this play sparks conversations at the dinner table in Japan, just as it did in the US. I hope more works like Disgraced are produced and performed in Japan. I hope some of those works are written by Japanese playwrights and focus on the issues Japan faces as a society.