Disgraced, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is about to open in Sydney.

Disgraced, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is about to open in Sydney. Paul BYRNES spoke to the playwright, Ayad Akhtar.

Ayad Akhtar is bald, handsome, confident, successful and he won the Pulitzer Prize for his first play. When I reach him in London, where he’s doing rewrites for his new play, I tell him I hate him.

He laughs. Success was a late arrival in his career, which was hardly a career at all. He was born in New York but grew up in Milwaukee in a secular Muslim family. His father was anti-Islam, his mother observed some of the traditions. Ayad studied literature, worked as an actor without much success then taught acting in New York City. When he started on Disgraced, he had written a novel, American Dervish, which had good success, and 12 screenplays, which had not. In an extraordinary burst of creativity, he wrote four plays in eight months, one of which was Disgraced.

‘I’ve been at this so long. I’m 45 and it’s not like I decided to write a play yesterday and then I won the Pulitzer. I’ve been doing this 25 years and failing at it for most of that time and I think… I know who I am. The Pulitzer is not going to change that. I’m no different the day before I won the Pulitzer than the day after. The only thing that is different is everybody else looking at me. I’m the same person.’

Amir Kapoor, the lead character in Disgraced, wears $600 shirts. He works for a successful law firm in New York City – Leibowitz, Bernstein and Harris – and he’s hoping to add his name as the next partner. Except that Kapoor is not his birth name. It’s Abdullah, a fact he concealed when he joined the firm. Like a lot of Muslims in America, he is incognito, although he protests that he has renounced Islam.

‘I’m an apostate,’ he says, during a stormy dinner party with three non-Muslims. ‘..According to the Quran that makes me punishable by death.’

Disgraced has a lot of name-changing and name-calling. Each of the five characters is defined by race. Emily is ‘early thirties, white, lithe and lovely’; Amir, her husband, is ‘forty, of South Asian origin’. There’s Isaac, a Jewish American curator of art, and his African-American wife Jory, who works in the firm with Amir. Amir’s nephew Hussein, raised in Pakistan, has come to study in America and has changed his name to Abe Jensen. It makes life easier.

The party at Amir and Emily’s apartment turns very nasty. As the whisky and wine flow, the talk moves to the nature of Islam and Amir’s militant opposition to it. It gets rough in all directions. Akhtar had a lot on his mind during the four years in which he wrote and rewrote the play, prior to its debut in Chicago in 2012. There followed sell-out runs run at the Lincoln Centre in New York, on Broadway, a season in London and now The Sydney Theatre Company, in a production directed by Sarah Goodes. (Ardyn – mention Sydney cast here?).

In the play, Akhtar seems unafraid of issues that have become hard to talk about since 9/11. Amir rips into Islam, before turning his anger and intellect on the other characters and their faiths. The Koran, says Amir, ‘is like one very long hate mail to humanity’. I asked the playwright how he avoided the temptation to self-censor?

‘It was easy in my case because I did not think anybody was going to read it. I had spent so long really struggling, and at the point that I was writing all this work, I did not have any prospects. My prospects had dwindled to nothing, almost. It was a moment of great freedom too, because I had finally begun to find what I could call an artistic voice, I guess. I was writing in a vacuum but I was writing to a universal sense of what felt like what I wanted to be writing to, and about. I didn’t know anybody who ran a theatre at that point… I didn’t have an agent.’

So why write this when you were at rock bottom?

‘Because I fell in love so deeply with story-telling and literature at the age of 15. There is nothing I have ever wanted to do other than that… And when things have been really bad and I have thought, I don’t know if I can go on, I have had the thought in my darkest moments, I’ve said if I’ve gotta go down with the ship for this, I can live with that. It’s a hard place to get to and it’s a place you don’t wanna go back to.’

The reactions from Muslims in America have run from volcanic opposition to dogged support. ‘Some very angry reactions, some vociferous defenders as well. It’s been a wild ride with the Muslim community around this play. They feel very assaulted by it, and I think that some in the community welcome the assault and others in the community feel it is not the right time for something like this.

‘All of my work of the past eight to ten years has been a loving, celebratory and incendiary critique of the tradition. American Dervish, my novel, is that, and the other plays… But the reaction has not come close to home. If you’re asking me have there been any threats, no there hasn’t been anything like that, but it’s like the kind of reaction that the Irish had to Frank McCourt… and how many in the Jewish community didn’t like Philip Roth. When you write about a minority community that is struggling with its place within a larger majority, as the Irish and the Jewish communities have, and as the Muslim community is now, there is a defensiveness. There is a sense that those representations should be uniformly positive. What people fail to understand is that there is absolutely no aesthetic, dramatic or human interest in characters who are unreal.’

At the same time, he thinks Muslims understand parts of the play better than non-Muslims. ‘It’s an airing of anger towards the non-Muslim west. It really is an expression of rage in many ways. It is carefully mitigated by convention but I think the throbbing pulse of that anger is still present in the play and when the production is able to tap into that, it can be quite a confusing experience for an audience. Because it is playing along with certain expectation and then keeps derailing them, and ultimately ends in a place of dissonant rage…

‘I remember my mum saying, I can’t believe you got away with saying some of those things.  I said, mum, I think I got away with it because nobody knows what I’m actually saying. With a play, I don’t necessarily know what it is that I am thinking. It’s something that emerges over time through the creation of the work. ‘I remember the night of the premiere in Chicago, I was doubled over sobbing for half an hour. That was the first time I actually experienced this thing that I had written. I didn’t know what it was until I saw it in front of an audience, in public, and then it was like oh, this is what this is… There is so much pain in that play.’