In the fall of 2012, Lincoln Center theater produced Ayad Akhtar’s first play, Disgraced, a witty and compelling comedy of bad manners dealing with the topical and controversial subject of Muslim identity in this country. In the play, an urbane dinner party, thrown by a successful Pakistani-American lawyer and his Caucasian artist wife at their well-appointed Upper East Side home, breaks down into an unexpectedly brutal examination of the faith and politics of the hosts and their guests. The play, which received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and will be seen again in New York this fall, this time on Broadway, established Akhtar as a new and exciting voice in the American theater. Born in New York City and raised in Wisconsin to Pakistani immigrants, the actor turned playwright gives voice to a community rarely represented on our stages, grappling with the thorny issues facing an immigrant generation caught between 21st-century mores and the conservative traditions of their faith. In a recent conversation, Akhtar talked to me about his current play, The Who & the What, now playing through July 27 at Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater, and the underlying themes and passions in his writing.
How would you describe The Who & the What?
It’s a family story, about two sisters and their father. One of the sisters, Zarina, is writing a book which is a humanizing portrait of the Prophet Muhammad, and her father who’s a believing, practicing Muslim—not particularly rigid, but certainly conservative—doesn’t know that. And over the course of the play he finds out about the book. But it’s also a play about how the image of the prophet figures in the lives of these folks, in the mythological space, notably the life of the lead character, Zarina. The deeper subject matter of the play is the Ummah’s—the Muslim community’s—relationship to the prophet. And the other side of the play is really just an immigrant tale of Afzal, the father, coming to embrace America on one level and, on the other, his continued at-oddness with American life and also with his own daughter’s choices. It’s a very old tale which is told again and again. I’m just telling it in this particular community.
Did you have any qualms about taking on the hot-button subject of Islamic faith?
I didn’t because I feel that the outrage that people would feel is represented on stage. And I feel that whatever the play is doing, it’s doing it with a profound sense of love and respect for the tradition. And I think the tradition is strong enough to withstand questions. I could be wrong about this, but I think that a lot of Muslims who’ve come to see the play feel that their own polarities are actually represented—that it’s not an attack on Muslim consciousness, but an exploration of these poles within the consciousness.
Are some of the questions the character Zarina seems to be asking when writing her book similar to the questions you had when you were writing your novel, American Dervish?
Probably. A lot of the questions that I’ve continued to ask for some time now are about trying to understand what the Quran really means—historically and also as a literary heritage. I think, post-Friedrich Schleiermacher [“the Father of Modern Liberal Theology”], we are very attuned and aware of how the Old Testament and New Testament have operated as literary traditions within Western civilization. I think that that process isn’t quite as fully developed when it comes to the Quran. So, in a way, I think I’m just participating in that process. And I’m doing it as an entertainer really, more than as an artist. I joke about this play being Neil Simon with a PhD in comp lit! And to me, that feels like the right place for me to land with these questions and these issues.
How did the Quran figure in your life? Were your parents religious?
It figured pretty strongly in childhood because I got very interested in it. My parents are both doctors. My dad is kind of an avowed atheist now, but even when I was growing up he just wasn’t particularly interested. My mum was devotional in a very traditional South Asian way where she would pray, but not five times. My mum’s whole generation was really very Western-looking. She was educated in a convent school and had pictures of Ernest Hemmingway and Elvis Presley on her wall. My parents look at what’s happening in Pakistan now and are perplexed by it. It was really with the arrival of General Zia-ul-Haq [Pakistan’s president in 1979] that I think the country changed so much. And, of course, the Afghan war and all of the money that came into the country under the aegis of the Islamist struggle against the infidel Soviets. My parents grew up before all of that and aspired in traditional sub-continental style to English aspirations and ideals.
I was firmly rooted in the American experience and totally disconnected from any of that stuff. I think I gravitated naturally to religion, which is something so many kids of my age did. They just had different religions than I did. And so for me the Quran became very important in my early adolescence. Islam became a way for me to understand my difference. That changed at the end of high school, when I started reading Camus and Dostoyevsky and Kafka. So my formulation is that my childhood phase crashed on the shores of my intellectual development. In my early college years I became a kind of pugilistic agnostic, and after that I discovered a renewed interest religiosity, but from a non-denominational point of view. Religion has been the subject of all my work and will probably continue to be so. Even if I’m not treating religion directly, I’m interested in the ways that we imagine our worlds mythically. And how we situate ourselves in those imagined worlds—even if we’re only talking about capitalism. Free-market ideology is as unthinking in many cases as the born-again Evangelicals.