One of the most popular quotes in William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” is the monologue, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.” The eloquent words compare life stories to plays, and emphasize that the world has many stages to perform and tell these stories. The PlayMakers Repertory Company presents the contemporary, season premier play, “Disgraced” and reinforces this idea in Shakespeare’s monologue. The inspiration of the story and theatrical productions is based on personal life experiences by not only the playwright, but also producers, directors, and many who are touched by the context of this challenging political and religious themed production. “Disgraced,” written by Ayad Akhtar, has won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Obie Award for Best Playwriting in 2012, a 2015 Tony Award nomination for Best Play, and recognition from The New York Times as one of the Ten Best Plays of 2012. Akhtar’s “Disgraced” is the most-produced play nationwide in the coming 2015-16 season, according to the theater industry’s largest trade group and currently has 18 productions.
The PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill through fortuitous chain of events in 2015, the production of the play was initiated by Joseph Haj, the previous Producing Artistic Director at the PlayMakers Repertory Company. The motivation and unfortunate inspiration to produce it was correlated to real life tragic events in the February 10, 2015 shooting and deaths of three college students Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. Police reports state that the act occurred over a parking space dispute, while the nation and worldwide media coverage referred to it as yet another hate crime relating to Muslim culture.
Similar to many of Shakespeare’s tragic plays, “Disgraced” is filled with the complexities that emulate what is happening in society. The deaths of innocent and aspiring college students have led to deep emotions, torment, opinions, judgment, confusion, and frustrations as people try to process and make sense of the chaos. They resemble the trauma, drama, and madness that are elements of the live theater performance of “Disgraced.”
According to PlayMakers Repertory press release, “In the play, an upwardly mobile Pakistani-American lawyer has achieved success while distancing himself from his Muslim heritage. When he and his wife host a dinner party, friendly conversation turns to politics and religion, escalating into something far more dangerous.”
Shishir Kurup is the director of the production. He was born in Bombay, India and raised in Mombasa, Kenya and the U.S. Kurup has a long and impressive list of achievements as a director, composer, playwright, actor, musician and ensemble member of Los Angeles’ Cornerstone Theatre Company for over 20 years. He is a recipient of the Kennedy Center Award, L.A. Weekly Award and Drama-Logue Awards. As an actor, he has had roles on “True Blood,” “Lost,” “Heroes,” “Alias” and “The West Wing,” among other films and TV programs.
Interview and discussions with Shishir Kurup, Director of “Disgraced”:
Kimberly Ruskan (K): How did “Disgraced,” being a Pulitzer Prize play, come about to be presented at Playmakers Repertory Company here in North Carolina?
Shishir Kurup (S) : Joe Haj picked it and he was interested in the subject matter, especially in connection to the shooting of the three Muslim students this year. Being part of the community, he realized the community was suffering and perhaps it would be an opportunity for people to be able to talk about the feelings they have.
We are hoping that the Muslim community comes out and we are connecting with them. The shows are very provocative and challenging. So it may or not be an easy conversation but one worth having because we have a very tenuous and complicated relationship and understanding of the Muslim community in this country. There is so much ignorance in people’s mind (of different cultures) for some people. There are real misgivings worthy to be challenged.
K: Themes and content of the play are politics and religion. That’s just fighting words.
S: In fact, that phrase is in the play.
K: You have a very impressive background and want to learn about more about it. As the director, what got you motivated and inspired to direct this play?
S: When Joe called this year not long after the shooting, he decided to add it the season’s program. I’ve heard about the play and I am interested in (themes of) South Asian plays. I was raise as Hindu growing up and I’ve written from the point of view as a South Asian (in many works), like in my play, Merchant on Venice: I used the (original Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice) as the template and base for the storyline and made it into a two-hour show. I mixed characters together and in a setting in LA. It also deals with the Hindu and Muslim conflicts.
Then there’s the conflict with Muslims and Christians, and in Jerusalem it’s Christians and Jewish – different cultures and different religions but the conflicts are the same. It’s often propagated as a conflict. They are over 130 million Muslims living in India. It’s the second largest Muslim population in the world.
K: You phrased it and described that the conflicts are propagated with complexities and ignorance. In the media it’s even hard to keep tabs of actual facts in the United States, especially with the internet. It’s like getting information from the Hollywood tabloids, a mishmash of data, hard to know what is the real truth.
S: You know, being a person of Korean descent, the ignorance of people here in the United States that don’t know much about your culture and other people’s heritage in other countries.
K: It seems like the contents of the play are similar in your works and experiences of Hindu and Muslim conflicts like in your quote, “I wanted to direct ’Disgraced’ for a number of reasons, one being that it doesn’t shy away from the challenging and provocative questions of co-existence in the United States with its celebration of diversity and requisite fall out of that hybridity; namely a culture where people feel like they belong everywhere while also feeling like they belong nowhere.”
S: Everybody has an agenda and it’s easier to talk about in religion and faith. When you come here and you are an immigrant and you’re part of a religion, that can have a stigma attached to it. You’re going to be somebody who wants to raise the beautiful things in the culture or the horrible. What’s interesting about the arts is that I believe very much in the in the idea of the arts being the sacred and profane, living and walking hand in hand (like another spiritual ideal). And I think this play has a lot of that happening where you hear about the beauty and then you also hear about the transgresses and problematic (nature). And where the arguments come from and whom that they are elicited by, is not normally what you think. People that are defending it are not necessarily the people who practice it, so to speak. I find that to be quite interesting when I read it and it’s worth exploring. It’s something that I’m familiar with. When growing up in Kenya, I went to a Shia-Muslim (elementary) school (and was raised in Hindu culture). It’s equivalent to what a Catholic school might be here (presumption for a better education experience). Half of my school mates were Hindu and the other half was Muslim.
K: What was that like? Was there tension or was it amicable?
S: Sometimes it was weird. When I was a kid I remember when Israel, Palestinian and the wars that we’re going on in the Middle East. It was funny to me that the Muslim kids (at my school) would take the side of the Arabs, Egypt, Palestine or whoever was Muslim, and the Hindu kids buy defacto would go over to the Jewish side. I would literally say to my Jewish and Muslim friends during recess, “Why are you fighting? We all live in this country. Why are the Hindus on the side of Jews?”
K: You live on this earth long enough, people seem to be predictable, just replace one group with different flags, sports teams, culture, communities, and different countries. Back to the play: It does follow through that kind of conflict that triggers and brings about the conversation that can get passionate, emotional and even violent. As the director, what do you want the audience to experience and get if there was that quest?
S: It’s a difficult question to answer because I want people to walk out of there thinking, it’s a complex story. It is humanistic which looks at many different things and I hope when people see the play, they see and hear these smart cogent arguments. At the end of it, you’re not just pointing fingers, as the saying that three fingers are pointing back at you when you do. It’s not about all these “bogeymen” and other kinds of arguments that we have. We see both sides of the questions and arguments. And ultimately, what really rings through is the humanity, like the humanity of all the people talking with their prejudices and their better angels within the framework of the play. But we care about all the people involved, even when one of the actions in the play is quite challenging. I hope people can understand the way the play has been built up and see the built up frustrations of people and in their lives. I hope you say, “I don’t condone or feel the same way that this person does but I can understand.” Ultimately, I think we make art, like this play, to understand something we can understand more after the play.
K: It’s like filling in the blanks to understand the whole rationale of the conflicts the heated emotions, and hope the questions lead to answers to solve problems of these conflicts.
S: Yes. I also think about what is freedom, and what is religious freedom? There are constraints within the culture itself. There are many things in the Bible, the Torah and the Koran that are problematic when it comes to women and really amazing when it comes to women. It allows us to look at religions with different eyes – think eye, clear eye and the praising eye. There are good things and challenging things within all the questions in all of these religions, in Western religions particularly, about the Abrahamic ones that I’m talking about. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, they’re all roots of the same grandfather. I hope in the long run we understand what one person’s subjugation or what is called ones personal treasure is another man’s garbage, or vice versa. That’s what I find interesting in the play, and when you leave the theater, that is what you’ll be thinking about. There’s no easy answer to this situation and the roles of the people in this play.
A big part of play is the dinner scenes. I hope you walk out feeling you had a full and good meal but a meal that also leaves you thinking and wanting to discuss with the other people that saw it. You go out for a drink and some food and talk about it, and in the process you are able to unravel some complicated topics, understand the feelings, and think about it differently than before.
K: Based on producing and directing the powerful messages of the play did you learn things that you didn’t think about before, new thoughts or revelations that came about from the process of production? If so, what were the poignant ones?
S: What I found surprising was the way it was framed in the play (as he shared this question with set designer Nephelie Andonyadis), the way Islamic art is looked at and developed in this play. Comparing Renaissance artists’ views and (perceptions), the centrality of the viewer was themselves, the artist. For example, in the Western art, the Renaissance came about the centrality of the human figure and the idea of the viewer in a fixed position like photographic realism. Artists like Canaletto practiced the first ideas for a photographic prospective and these ideas came to life as people started to paint that way. (As he referenced to what David Hockney wrote about the influences of Canaletto’s type of art), the guns got bigger for gaming and the cannons got better(based on his influence).
Islamic Art has many shifting perspective in it versus single-perspective ways of looking at things. With Islamic art there are different perspectives like bending of the picture plane, looking at things with intricate details and less photographic realism. You have two different mindsets clashing together. That’s one of the things in the play that has a powerful metaphor of ego and the realization. Centrality of the individual is less important in Islamic culture and the art. It’s more abstract and has larger ideas of existence.
K: You’re also a musician; what was the motivating force for that?
S: That is my first love. I just feel grateful and fortunate to be able to do that in the theater. What I wanted to do was to have a rock’n roll band and not do any of this other stuff. Back then, there was not a lot of South Asians doing rock’n roll bands.
K: I thought it would be the other way around, that you drop the music for the theater.
S: No, no, no. I brought the love of music into the theater.
K: I read that you’ve composed 150 songs.
S: No, more than that. It’s over 200 plus. The theater company that I’ve been with for the past 21 years gave me the opportunity because the artistic director wanted plays with songs and I said, “Well I’m your man.” There were times I could write the songs for plays, act in them and direct them. It was really a great opportunity that I’ve been given to bring these “loves” together. There’s a lot of musicality in directing. Sound is really important to me in a play, along with lights and set design. The sound is where I am moved so I think about it a lot. This play is little bit more subdued in terms of sound and a naturalistic and realistic play so we’re doing little touches of it.
You have to see set by the way. It is ridiculous. The set designer (Nephelie Andonyadis), designed a set that required 15,000 pieces of one inch by 8 inches of cut wood and hammered into the stage flooring to create this incredible design and pattern. If people knew how it was made, it would add to the story of the play.(See photo gallery)
K: You create a solo performance speech call The Assimilation, which you wrote and performed.
S: It was tongue-in-cheek yet (it was what he was doing in his everyday life to assimilate living in the US). I do many accents. If you didn’t see me, I can be anybody with my accents … I could be black, I could be white, I could be brown or be purple. In a funny way, I was saying to the world that I have many voices. The assimilation piece was telling this country: You see me visually and you think of one thing and only one thing, and this is everything else that I am.
And that’s the fun part of it (what I do), I want to be able to make people laugh, I want them to cry and to feel all those things and do them as other people and tell my story through other people that I play.
Ultimately all storytelling means telling the story over and over again. Whether you’re a biggest star on this planet, or someone who has never been on stage, I don’t care who it is … everyone wants to be heard. Everybody wants to tell their story and hear each other’s story, ultimately to find out “why I am here” and “what is our purpose.”
K: Because of the political nature and religious content of the play, do you see redemption messages that might not be obvious? Through your due process of production as a director and even though the content is complicated, is there some verbiage of redemption of these issues? Not to oversimplify, but is there some types of redemption in the end? Or do I have to wait and call you after the play is done?
S: There isn’t an easy redemption in the play but power of redemption of loss in Disgraced. When you lose something that is meaningful to you, that can be redemption because you’re brought to your nothingness and it (forces you to) continue to move forward and (hopefully) learn from the process.
In the terms of redemption of loss: This is when you come to the idea that we are here to live, love, and be loved. You consider the possible redemption of what happens when we lose all this, of what it does to us, where it take us, what we learn from it, how we grow from it and how we finally rise back up .That’s the opportunity where we learn to move forward through hope and this is where we can re-find ourselves and rise again.
Performances and special events for “Disgraced”
“Disgraced” Performances will take place in the Paul Green Theatre in UNC’s Department of Dramatic Art on Country Club Road. Show times will be Tuesdays through Saturdays and Sunday, Sept. 27 at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays and Saturday, Oct. 3 at 2 p.m. There are no performances Saturday, Sept. 26.
Other special events include:
• Sept. 14, 7 p.m.: “In the Wings,” presented by PlayMakers and the Durham County Library. Cast and creative team members discuss the play at the Main Library, 300 N. Roxboro St., downtown Durham
• Sept 16, 17 and 18, 7:30 p.m.: preview performances
• Sept. 19, 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m.: “American Muslims and Immigration Identities” in partnership with UNC’s Program in the Humanities and co-sponsored by the General Alumni Association
• Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m.: opening night performance
• Sept. 22: an all-access performance for attendees with special needs, with sign language interpretation and audio description
• Sept. 23 and 27: free post-show discussions with members of the creative team
• Sept. 27, 2-6 p.m.: “’Disgraced:’ A Workshop for Educators on Muslim American Identities” sponsored by the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations. To register, email firstname.lastname@example.org
• Oct. 3, 2 p.m.: open captioned performance
• Oct. 3, 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 4, 2 p.m.: free post-show “Mindplay” discussions sponsored by the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society