Since its world premiere at North Center's bare-bones American Theatre Company in 2012, Ayad Akhtar's blistering drama "Disgraced" has collected the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Best Play Tony nod. This week, the razor-edged exploration of ethnicity, assimilation and racism that closed on Broadway earlier this year returns to Chicago.
The much-anticipated Goodman production features Behzad Dabu reprising a role he created when "Disgraced" debuted three years ago. We caught up with Dabu for a conversation about his history with the show, the explosive reactions it elicits from audiences and why you'll never see him acting while barefoot.
When you originally signed on with "Disgraced" for its world premiere at ATC, it was an unknown entity being produced with a shoestring budget in a tiny theater. What drew you to it?
Behzad Dabu: It wasn't my character, Abe, that originally drew me in. It was the lead, Amir. Before Amir speaks a single word, you learn so much about him. And what you learn - what you see - isn't what you usually see when there's a brown man on stage. He's not some barefoot beggar out in the desert. He's not holding an AK-47. He's wearing this incredibly tailored, expensive suit. He's in a gorgeous, million-dollar apartment. He's got a beautiful wife. It's exceedingly rare that you see brown men depicted like that on stage. I knew I wouldn't play Amir because I was 20 years too young. But he fascinated me.
Amir is a rich high-powered attorney who has almost completely disassociated himself from his Muslim upbringing in order to fit in at work. His nephew Abe has walked away from his roots too, correct? I mean, he walks in and he looks like an American Apparel ad.
BD: Yeah, Abe's as assimilated as you can possibly get - skinny jeans, Nikes, baseball cap, everything. Even the name he's taken, ‘Abe Jenson' - it's almost a cartoon name.
Both Abe and Amir go through seismic changes over the course of the play, but while we see exactly what happens to Amir, Abe's transformation happens offstage. Abe exits in his skinny jeans and the next time he enters, he's wearing a skull cap and has gone back to his birth name, Hussein. Can you talk about what happens to him?
BD: I think Abe sees his uncle's downfall, and starts thinking - Amir's got the beautiful wife and the important job and the big salary and the beautiful home and the fancy clothes, (but) even (with) all of that, Amir's life is in shambles. So if Amir can't fully assimilate and overcome hundreds of years of colonialism and oppression, what chance does Abe have? Abe sees that by trying so hard to be fit in he and Amir have lost sight of who they are. They're losing sight of themselves. They have to get back to their roots.
I wanted to get back to what you said earlier about the way brown men are so often depicted as either terrorists or barefoot tribesmen. Are there stereotypes you won't play?
BD: Yep. I just turned down a TV part as a terrorist. But I'm not going to play some guy who just stands around holding a machine gun. Or some generic, poor barefoot person. Not unless there's a character with real depth and complexity along with it.
This spring, I'm playing an American (in the Goodman's "The Matchmaker"). Off the top of my head, I think that'll be the first time in the 10 years since I got to Chicago that I've been cast as just ‘regular' American. Which I am, by the way. I was born in Boston, raised in Syracuse.
There are 32 different theaters slated to produce "Disgraced" over the next two years. Why do you think it's hitting such a nerve?
When I read the whole play what struck me was how fast the situation escalates. One minute these characters are talking about, like, fennel and organic salad, and the next they're on 9/11 and the next they're in the middle of violence. The progression is shocking and totally believable and all of a sudden you're like, my god, how did we get here? I think that gets to people, how easily things can escalate.
The other thing is that so many of the themes and the questions it asks are universal - how much are you willing to sacrifice to achieve the American Dream? And can you ever completely root out the culture and the religion that's in your bones? It's a play that makes you think. I hope it's also a play that people talk about after they've seen it.
"Disgraced" runs through October 18 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets are $20 - $85. For more information, go to goodmantheatre.org or call 312-443-3800.
Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily) and Behzad Dabu (Abe) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior
Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Zakiya Young (Jory) and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac)