“Does race matter”, was a question I posed a year ago, when Arena Stage produced August Wilson’s play, King Hedly II. The director of that production, Timothy Douglas, returned to Arena Stage, with Disgraced, which asks the same question in a different format. For King Hedly II, the question referred to a play about an inner-city neighborhood in which African-American actors only made sense to cast. And, further, as an audience member, being white myself, would seeing the play with an African-American audience change my experience? For Disgraced, the racial identity of the characters is now Irish-American, Pakistani-American, African-American, and Jewish-American… or are they just Americans? What is more telling is that this play, presented in an obviously well-educated, liberal-leaning theatre, cuts through justification-by-race and ideology. In the end, we leave wondering whether we are all guilty and incapable of changing what our race is.
Disgraced is a drawing-room drama, set in an upper-middle class apartment in Manhattan, with a small balcony view of the Midtown skyline. Four characters interact around their ambitions and fears of their upbringing.
Emily (Ivy Vahanian) is an aspiring artist, most likely Irish-American Catholic, by her complexion, red hair, and infatuation with unifying the glories of all religions and cultures.
Her husband, Amir (Nehal Joshi) is a corporate lawyer, aspiring to become the first Indian partner in the Jewish law firm for which he works. He makes a point to identifying with being Indian, not Pakistani, because his father was born in a province that would become part of Pakistan, the year before the British drew the national boundary in hopes that the Hindi and Muslims would not cross the line in civil war.
Jory (Felicia Cury) is an African-American lawyer with the same law firm. She has striven to become educated and accepted into white society, which her parents were never allowed to. She fluctuates between wanting to believe that race and heritage is irrelevant, and wanting to show that she is as good as those who have status because of birth.
Her husband, Isaac (Joe Isenberg) is the Jewish curator of a major museum in New York. His mission is to make deals, and make people, while demonstrating that he need not be relegated to businesses that the upper class deem tainted.
A firth character, Abe ( Sapin Raval), is Amir’s nephew. He initially has rejected his Muslim background and name, taking on an Americanized name with Jewish connotation.
The web of connection of these characters occurs as Amir has used his work affiliation with Jory to bring Emily’s art work to Isaac’s attention. Isaac views it promisingly, as they also banter about the evolution of art, religion and culture. Isaac arranges to exhibit some of her paintings at shows of new artists.
Amir and Jory share their ambitions to be accepted by the dominant culture, if not to out-do the establishment with future business plans. Amir and Isaac spar about whether each’s heritage has been oppressed by white society. Yet, this also brings up the past and current conflicts between Muslin and Jewish groups in the Middle-East. Commiseration turns to conflict.
Initially, they can dismiss this division by rejecting the fundamentalist wings of their cultural groups, the Jihadist and Zionist. Jory reminds them that African-Americans have been unable to drop the shackles of a heritage of slavery, even with civil rights legislation, education, and the development of a wealthy African-American class. Emily moderates all with the liberal ideal of seeing what is best from each of their pasts.
But, haunting are those pasts. Isaac’s resentment of his family’s confinement to certain neighborhoods and jobs become a topic of discussion. Amir rejects the basic beliefs that his mother imbued in him regarding marriage. Jory relishes the cohesion of her segregated neighborhood and church, while having no affiliation with this now. Emily continues to deny that undesirable features exist in each of their backgrounds.
Ultimately, these divisions become insurmountable. No rationale or justification or good intent can overcome the racial background from which each character originated. As the conflicts mount, each retreats to the simple, hostile, defensive positions that they learned as children. The beautiful facade of their upper middle-class apartment become a distance vista seen only out a window.