CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the story of one of the world's biggest and most destructive industries, tourism. Author Elizabeth Becker talks about the explosion in travel since the Cold War.
But, first, we're talking about traveling between cultural worlds here in the U.S., the struggle between honoring your religious and ethnic roots and also embracing an American identity. That's the story that's as old as pretty much the country itself. That dilemma has been especially powerful recently for Muslim-Americans and those tensions are at the heart of "Disgraced," a play that recently won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
The story centers around Amir Kapoor, a successful Pakistani-American lawyer who has no time for Islam. Here's a clip from "Disgraced." This is a performance at the Lincoln Center in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DISGRACED")
AASIF MANDVI: (as Amir Kapoor) The next terrorist attack is coming from someone who, kind of, sort of, looks like me.
HEIDI ARMBRUSTER: (as Emily Kapoor) See, I totally disagree. The next attack is coming from some white guy who's got a gun and needs a nap.
MANDVI: (as Amir Kapoor) And he's pointing it at someone who, kind of, sort of, looks like me.
ARMBRUSTER: (as Emily Kapoor) Not necessarily.
HEADLEE: "Disgraced" has moments of humor, anger and even tragedy. Playwright Ayad Akhtar is in London rehearsing "Disgraced" for its British debut and he joins me now.
Welcome to the program and, first of all, congratulations, of course.
AYAD AKHTAR: Thank you so much, Celeste.
HEADLEE: This is your first play. What an amazing thing to try writing a play and your very first effort wins the Pulitzer.
AKHTAR: Yeah. I know. Where do you go from there?
HEADLEE: I'm asking you that.
AKHTAR: Your guess is as good as mine. I still barely believe it's happened, so I'm still sorting through it all.
HEADLEE: The lead character in your play, Amir Kapoor - to what extent is the situation that he's in reminiscent of your own situation?
AKHTAR: Well, you know, he's a corporate lawyer pulling in somewhere north of 600 grand a year. I...
HEADLEE: You don't make that much is what you're saying?
AKHTAR: I - yeah. That's an understatement. You know, I'm an actor by training and I think I come to the writing process with the idea or the process of identification with my characters and sort of building from the inside out. So, with Amir, there's obviously, you know, fragments of things that I'm taking from my own life. You know, my dad always said I was really good with words and really good at sort of - you know, I could talk the monkeys out of the trees. I should become a lawyer.
You know, I think that, in some way, perhaps, you know, Amir is a kind of projected self that I could have become had I made some very different choices, but you know, I think what perhaps he and I share is an attempt - how would I put it? What do we share? I think we share the dilemma of coming to terms with what it means to be Muslim whether that's a cultural term or a religious term or however we're defining it in a post-9/11 world where being Muslim is not a neutral fact.
The play is about how we talk about Islam, how we frame Islam, what meaning we find in it and how those conversations are actually not just theoretical conversations. They have some pretty profound emotional content for people these days.
HEADLEE: There was one way, though, in which real life inspired you. At least I understand that the scene, the very dramatic, slightly tragic scene at the dinner party was inspired by a real party that you attended.
AKHTAR: Yeah. I had a - you know, I was at a dinner party in 2006 with some friends and talk turned to Islam and a couple of European friends were there and we were sort of talking about the kinds of difficulties that European countries and the multicultural experiment in Europe was running up against, you know, communities that were having difficulty being integrated into that larger project and my perspective on some of the issues, I think, was so unusual and surprising to my friends who I don't think had identified me as Muslim, at least not in any operative sense.
And I noticed in a very subtle way how that evening shifted their idea of me and it always - after that night, it always struck me that this would be a great idea for a play where...
HEADLEE: Wait. It shifted their idea of you in a negative way or a positive way?
AKHTAR: You know, it just changed the idea that they had of who I was.
HEADLEE: You know, in a certain way, your play feels a bit prophetic because the recent bombings in Boston and the reactions among some in terms of how you treat somebody who's Muslim, but is also an American citizen. This is something that your play grapples with. What was your reaction to not just the bombings themselves, but some of the discussion that's gone on since?
AKHTAR: You know, obviously, what happened in Boston is, it's tragic. And there's always this rush in the wake of trauma to formulate and categorize and some of that is obviously necessary and inevitable and unavoidable, but it doesn't appeal or doesn't draw on, I think, our stronger instincts. That is to say I think fast thinking in these instances is perhaps not really what's needed. Time, processing. I think that's one of the things that art can do is to convey or to offer a multi-valiant picture that the audience, the reader has to make sense of, offer questions that are thorny and difficult, which are not easily resolved, which serve as vehicles for a process of understanding, a process of integrating what it is that we know and coming to terms with that which we don't know.
HEADLEE: What you're discussing seems to be coming into consideration when they award things like the Pulitzer or the Nobel Peace Prize, for example, giving that to the European Union, to me, at least, felt like more of a political statement, an aspirational award. Do you think that giving the Pulitzer Prize to a play like yours - not just on its merits alone, which are great, absolutely - but is it effective? I mean, does this do something for the - I mean, if there's a message of your play, it would seem to me to be helping people get a deeper look at a culture and a religion that, in the United States, has been stereotyped too often. So does the Pulitzer help you get that message across?
AKHTAR: To me, that was not what I was doing when I was writing the play. I was not trying to convey some picture of Muslim-American life or to open a window onto a neglected community, representationally. As a writer, I'm working from the particular to the universal and I feel that, you know, so maybe not as effectively, but I feel that, if I'm not doing that, then the work really only has sociological interest.
It can't really engage an audience unless it lives and breathes in a place where the audience lives and breathes. The play has to reach the viewer in their own intimate, personal space, so to the extent that, you know, I'm writing about Muslim-American experience, it really is a portal onto a set of themes and preoccupations that are much more enduring and I think much more - at least, hopefully - universal.
HEADLEE: Well, congratulations to you again and much luck with your...
AKHTAR: Thank you so much.
HEADLEE: ...production in London and all of the other things you're involved in. That's playwright and actor, Ayad Akhtar. He's the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama for his debut play, "Disgraced." It opens in London next month and he joined us from the BBC studios there.
Thank you so much.
AKHTAR: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.