Donald Trump has no problem with racial profiling. He’d love to stop every Muslim at the border. And, hey, if the police “see somebody that’s suspicious,” he said in a speech, “they will profile. Look what’s going on. Do we really have a choice?”
The poster child for xenophobia, Trump wouldn’t understand the expression “driving while black” or the daily threats and humiliations people must face who look slightly suspicious.
Ayad Akhtar’s on a roll. San Diego has seen his The Who and the What (a father will not let his daughter marry a plumber) and Junk: The Golden Age of Debt (an epic about corporate greed), both world premieres at the La Jolla Playhouse. In 2013, Akhtar won the Pulitzer Prize for Disgraced. The 90-minute drama, currently in a pyrotechnic production at the San Diego Rep, exposes the corrosive effects of racial profiling.
From the looks of things, Amir Kapoor must have it all. He wears blindingly white dress shirts: $600 Charvets, of course, with a five-figure thread count. Blond, attractive wife Emily is an up-and-coming artist specializing in early Islamic aesthetics. Their Upper East Side apartment’s a study in palatial posh. A corporate lawyer specializing in mergers and acquisitions, Amir’s a cinch to become the firm’s next full partner, and first non-Jew.
That’s Amir’s “profile.” When we first see him, he’s posing for Emily. She’s painting a variation on Velazquez’s famous Portrait of Juan de Pareja (his slave, made immortal on canvas). From the waist up, Amir’s dressed to the nines. From the waist down, just sleek black boxers. At the time we note the incongruity and move on. As the play progresses, he’ll expose the rest of himself with an intricate series of conflicting impulses.
Disgraced starts with a formula: two married couples come together — to solve a small grievance in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage; for a nightcap after a faculty nosh in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Another formula, the couples are a tidy cross-section of races and cultures: Amir (from India?); Caucasian wife Emily; Jory, African-American lawyer on the rise; her Jewish husband Isaac, curator of the Whitney Museum.
In the two couples’ formula, small talk and safe topics give way to confessions, revelations, and breakdowns. The “real,” often monstrous, people come out. What sets Disgraced apart is it’s less easy to watch from afar, to stand outside the cage, than the others. Your first impressions — your pre-judgments — will pull you in, and may have been dead wrong.
To fit the profile of the American Dream, Amir renounced Islam. He changed his last name from Abdullah — a Muslim red flag — to Kapoor, a common name in India, and even his Social Security number. He eats pork and drinks 16-year-old Macallan scotch without fear of divine reprisal. His custom-fit duds, however, didn’t keep a waiter from waving a jihad-fearing finger at him the night before.
From the start, Ronobir Lahiri’s excellent performance at the San Diego Rep suggests Amir’s a bit off. He’s quick to snap and given to expressive stillness. Without ever exaggerating the impression, Lahiri suggests that Amir’s adopted profile has locked him in. The result is an emotional paralysis — a slave to his obsessively cultivated image. During a nine-month period — late summer 2011 to spring of 2012 — Amir will break through, then break down.
His nephew Abe Jensen (né Hussein Malik) wants Amir to support a local imam jailed for financing the enemy. In one of the play’s most telling points, Amir realizes that any association with terrorists — just one dinky percent — could endanger his career. He goes to court anyway, risks exposure, and the New York Times spots him. That tiny aperture, that one slip-up in his cultural assimilation, changes his life.
But, and here’s another of Lahiri’s suggestive nuances: did some part of Amir want it to happen all along?
You can almost hear a clock ticking in the Rep’s production...or a time bomb. Director Michael Arabian builds tension so well it’s certain the fireworks will devastate. But even that sense of growing menace may not prepare you for the fallout from Amir’s manic outbursts. They’re guaranteed to offend just about everyone on the planet, but also to instruct.
The production’s so effective that even when Akhtar layers in a gaggle of melodramatic revelations — all four characters shed their public “profiles” and unveil their real selves — they feel genuine.
One of the play’s themes: people don’t see individuals anymore, just stereotypes and profiles. The Rep’s five-person cast offers proof. They enter pretty much labels-first. But they peel away externals and expose what we might have overlooked. Credit to expert work: Allison Spratt Pearce’s Emily, whose idealism gets a gut check; Richard Baird’s often comical Isaac, way seedier than assumed; Monique Gaffney’s Jory the lawyer who favors “order over justice” (but what about “no justice, no peace”?); and M. Keala Miles, Jr., whose young Abe will de-assimilate and become a fiery Hussein Malik once again.
79 Horton Plaza, Downtown San Diego
Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Michael Arabian; cast: Ronobir Lahiri, Allison Spratt Pearce, M. Keala Miles, Jr., Richard Baird, Monique Gaffney; scenic design, John Iacovelli; costumes, Anastasia Pauktova; lighting, Brian Gale; sound, Kevin Anthenill
Playing through November 13; Sunday and Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2 p.m.