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‘Disgraced’ a provocative look at identity and politics

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From left, Nisi Sturgis, Bernard White, J. Anthony Crane and Zakiya Young are excellent in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s timely production of playwright Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced.” (Courtesy Liz Lauren)

With the Paris attacks on everybody’s mind on Friday the 13th, it seemed an especially significant opening night for American playwright Ayad Akhtar’s powerful, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Disgraced” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (in a co-production with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Seattle Repertory Theatre).

The 80-minute play starts off with little indication of the considerable fireworks ahead. New York acquisitions and mergers lawyer Amir (a particularly potent Bernard White) is modeling in his living room, in a business suit and underpants, for his artist wife, Emily, who’s painting a head-and-shoulders portrait of him after the 17th-century Spanish artist Velazquez.

Amir, it turns out, is a secular Muslim of Pakistani heritage (he calls himself an apostate) who tells everyone he’s Indian in order to fit in to post-9/11 America and rise in his (Jewish-owned) law firm. Later on, others will call him a self-hating Muslim.

Equally ambitious Emily (played by blond, all-American-looking Nisi Sturgis) is hoping that her Islamic-influenced art will be accepted for an important exhibit curated by Isaac (an amiable J. Anthony Crane), who’s Jewish.

There are red flags early on. Amir seems agitated; he’s fielding too many calls on his cell phone. And conflict rises between the seemingly happy couple when Emily and Amir’s nephew Hussein (Behzad Dabu) tries to persuade him to aid a local imam who’s been arrested for terrorism but is presumably innocent. Amir wants nothing to do with the case.

And Isaac, when he shows up to evaluate Emily’s art, worries that her work may be perceived as Orientalism.

Later, Isaac and his African-American wife, Jory (an especially magnetic Zakiya Young), who’s Amir’s law-firm colleague, arrive as dinner guests, and soon enough Amir gets drunk and truculent.

When he and Isaac begin to argue about Islam — the very word itself, says Amir, means “submission” — things get heated. Sensitive issues that are on everyone’s mind these days — terrorism, immigration, Islamophobia and more — rise to the surface, with results more disastrous than you’d imagine.

Director Kimberly Senior crafts the action with careful attention to the rhythm of continually rising tensions and to the nuances of interaction among the characters.

And playwright Akhtar examines the issues in ways that feel organic and authentic. No point of view feels right; no point of view feels wrong. This is a play in which the audience itself is likely to feel at times deeply implicated in ways that the very best theater experience can provide.

REVIEW

Disgraced
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 20
Tickets: $29 to $89
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org

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