Ayad Akhtar is a novelist, actor and screenwriter. And when his first play, Disgraced, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013, he also became one of the most talked about new voices in American theater.
Long before this buzz, though, Akhtar grew up in a Muslim family with roots in Pakistan. He mines this background to bring the inner lives and conflicts of Muslim Americans to the stage. His plays often feature cutting dialogue and confrontations steeped in the tension between Islamic tradition and personal evolution.
Akhtar's latest play, The Who & the What, is set in Atlanta and tackles the role of women in Muslim families. As with his other work, Akhtar's own family helped inspire the drama.
"One of the central questions of my childhood was the role of women in my culture," Akhtar says. "I grew up around so many brilliant and strong women who really seemed to suffer and chafe under the familial and religious order."
At the heart of his new play is a young woman named Zarina, who wants to confront that order. She's secretly writing a scathing book about the Prophet Muhammad, hoping to expose what she considers the misogyny at the heart of Islamic history. When Zarina's observant father and sister discover her manuscript, the three of them descend into accusations of blasphemy and betrayal.
Playwright Donald Margulies served on the jury that recommended Akhtar's Disgraced for the Pulitzer Prize, and he says these kinds of clashes are at the heart of great theater. He says, "Theater is a place where arguments can be dramatized in a much more exciting way than if it were simply prose narrative."
He adds that what makes Akhtar's work especially exciting is that he is staging multiple perspectives within a community that is still working through its place in America.
"The African-American experience, the Jewish American experience — these have been very prevalent in our drama for generations now, and the fact that here we were having a Muslim American experience that was being dramatized was a very momentous occasion," he says.
Akhtar acknowledges that Muslims face an especially precarious place in American society in the aftermath of Sept. 11. In the shadow of surveillance, profiling and doubt, many Muslim artists have been inspired to explore identity in their work. But Akhtar says his characters are also facing a more universal dilemma.
"The process of becoming American has to do with rupture and renewal — rupture from the Old World, renewal of the self in a new world. That self-creative capacity is what it means to be American in many ways, and I think that part of that rupture is the capacity to make fun of yourself and the capacity to criticize yourself."
Muslim viewers haven't always appreciated seeing all that self-criticism on stage. Even as critics have heaped praise on Akhtar — and Disgraced was picked up for a Broadway run this fall — some Muslims have accused Akhtar of employing negative stereotypes for dramatic effect. They say that he's airing the Muslim community's dirty laundry for an outside audience.
Director Kimberly Senior, who is also one of Akhtar's close friends and his main collaborator, says that as a Jewish artist she recognizes that accusation. Senior explains: "We're often so concerned about other people's perceptions of who we are that it holds us back in this kind of amazing way. I think what Ayad is doing ... is the same as I feel when I read Philip Roth."
Senior says that by showing the darker edges and failings of Muslim characters, Akhtar is actually providing access for audiences outside the faith to identify with these characters. "This play is as much a love letter to Ayad's dad as it is to my dad," she says.
Akhtar says he wants to push conversations about how Muslims grapple with adapting their sacred texts to modern life. If his work can contribute to that discussion, he says, it is a mark of collective progress.
"An artist's job is to tease and poke and question the larger racial, ethnic, religious and social conscience and in the process to provoke questions that lead to new practices and new way of seeing."
He adds, "Being in conflict with one's subject matter is not such a bad sign after all."
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Ayad Akhtar became the first Muslim-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. He won the prize last year. He minds his family background to create characters struggling with what it means to be both American and Muslim. His latest play is now on stage in New York City. NPR's Balow Kareshi has this profile.
BALOW KARESHI, BYLINE: Ayad Akhtar grew up in Wisconsin. He studied at Brown University in Rhode Island. He's an actor, a screenwriter and a novelist. But he seems to have found his voice on stage.
AYAD AKHTAR: There is an immediacy and an aliveness when theater is at it's best. It can't be rivaled in any other form.
KARESHI: When I met Ayad Akhtar at Lincoln Center before the opening of his latest play, "The Who And The What," he was still tweaking the script to clarify the complicated themes he's bringing to life.
AKHTAR: One of the central questions of my childhood was the role of women in my culture. And, you know, I grew up around so many brilliant and strong women who really seem to suffer and to chafe under the familial order, the social order, the religious order.
KARESHI: The main character in his new play disrupts that order. She's a young writer named Zarina (ph) working on a scathing book about the prophet Mohammed. She wants to expose the misogyny and discrimination and the roots of Islam to go after the sacred messenger of God. Her husband Eli asks, why do you hate the prophet?
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE WHO AND THE WHAT")
NADINE MALOUF: (As Zarina) I don't hate him. I hate what the faith does to women. For every story about his generosity or his goodness, there's another that's used as an excuse to hide us - erase us.
KARESHI: Her observant father and sister find her manuscript.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE WHO AND THE WHAT")
BERNARD WHITE: (As Zarina's father) Then why is she writing these things? It's unacceptable. Completely unacceptable. I won't stand for it. In Pakistan she would be killed for this. Killed.
KARESHI: But Zarina is not in Pakistan, she's in the U.S. And that disconnect also gives the "The Who And The What" an element of humor and its sarcastic energy. Kimberly Senior is directoring the current production. She acknowledges that a play riffing on Islamic Scripture and gender politics sounds more academic than entertaining.
KIMBERLY SENIOR: Whenever I start describing it to people I'm, like, oh, gosh this sounds like a thesis - but it's not. It doesn't play like one at all.
KARESHI: She says "The Who And The What" is about the search for identity.
SENIOR: Identity, as just an idea or a theme, is probably not inherently theatrical. But if you then think about how do we define identity and it's usually our self in relationship to others - in love relationships, in family relationships, in work relationships, right? So that it's so much about those relationships that define us and so then that's when it starts to become theatric.
KARESHI: Theater is a place where argument can be dramatized. Donald Margolis teaches drama at Yale. He's also a Pulitzer prize-winning playwright.
DONALD MARGOLIS: I think the fact that we're seeing characters who are behaving and embodying certain beliefs and seeing those clashes take place and hearing those arguments being made I think is something that is very specific to live theater.
KARESHI: The tension between tradition and evolution is at the heart of Ayad Akhtar's theater.
AKHTAR: The process of becoming American has to do with rupture and renewal. Rupture from the old world, renewal of the self in a New World. That self-creative capacity is what it means to be American in many ways. And I think that part of that rupture is the capacity to make fun of yourself. Is the capacity to criticize yourself.
KARESHI: The boundaries of that kind of self-criticism were at the heart of "Disgraced" the play that won Ayad Akhtar the Pulitzer Prize.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DISGRACED")
AASIF MANDVI: (As Amir Kapoor) No. 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 he shouldn't have.
MANDVI: (As Amir Kapoor) And he's pointing it someone who kind of, sort of looks like me.
KARESHI: Donald Margolis served on the jury that recommended "Disgraced" for the prize. He says, he was impressed on how a put the spotlight on yet another community grappling with its place in America.
MARGOLIS: The African-American experience, the Jewish-American experience, these have been very prevalent in our drama for generations now. And the fact that here we were having a Muslim-American experience that was being dramatized was a very momentous occasion.
KARESHI: But Muslim audiences haven't always been as gracious with Akhtar's work. Some have accused the playwright of employing negative stereotypes of Muslims for dramatic thrills of trying to entertain by airing the community's dirty laundry. Kimberly Senior, Akhtar's director and collaborator, grew up in a Jewish family.
SENIOR: We're so often concerned about other people's perceptions of who we are that we are unable to - it holds us back in this kind of amazing way. And I think what Ayad is doing, that although might feel like it's airing your dirty laundry, and feels uncomfortable - as I feel when I read Philip Roth, or Haiyan Potok, or so many fabulous Jewish writers that we've had in our cannon - that there it actually provides access and it's like, that family's just like mine. I mean, this play is as much as a love letter to Ayad's dad as it is to my dad.
AKHTAR: And artists job is to tease and to poke and question the larger racial, ethnic, religious, social conscience.
KARESHI: Playwright Ayad Akhtar.
AKHTAR: And in the process to provoke questions that lead to new practices, new ways of seeing. So being in conflict with one's subject matter is probably not such a bad sign after all.
KARESHI: Akhtar says he sees criticism from Muslim-Americans as a mark of progress. Balow Kareshi, NPR News.
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