"Disgraced" at The Great Theater of China


"Disgraced" is a powerful play that has condensed some profound discussions on the current world in 90 minutes.  After watching it, questions and thoughts about marriage, Islamophobia, and self-identity came into my mind.  Prior to watching this at the Grand Theater of China, I watched a stage-reading version of in at my school when they went on a tour.  For both times, the play was introduced by Ping Pong Productions (2017 China Tour and 2018 Inaugural Season of The Great Theater of China).

Plot synopsis (pulled from the above websites): "Disgraced" is the story of a Pakistani-American lawyer living the American dream - an Upper East Side apartment, expensive suits, happy marriage, and the promise of becoming a partner at his law firm. He and his wife, a Caucasian artist, invite his African American colleague and her Jewish husband for a dinner party. The heated discussion that erupts reveals hidden aspirations, fractured views on cultural assimilation, and the lies we tell ourselves and those we love to “fit into” the American Dream.

The overall impression I have of the play is steady and solid.  It's not usual to describe a play with these two words but I think this production of "Disgraced" has this kind of energy.

STAGE DESIGN:

On the stage, there is the interior of an upper-class apartment.  Stage left is the dining hall and a balcony that looks out to the sky scrappers and undimmed lights in the New York City.  Stage right is the living room, with artworks, wine bottles and nice vases on the wall.  Upper-stage left are three doors to the bedroom, the kitchen, and the bathroom.  The upper-stage center is a hallway that leads to the apartment door.

The furnishing has a clean, harmonious style and a safe color choice.  Everything is put apart from each other so that they occupy the large space.  I like how the pieces of furniture, the decor, and the small items all go together to form a cohesive style within the household.  All of this matches the social and economic status that Amir holds as an excellent lawyer.

The stage is often enveloped in the color of light turquoise throughout the play, and it comes in or dims out at a very steady pace.  I think the color is the undertone of the whole story - it sets a base of decency and soberness of the lawyer's apartment, on which some intense discussions and striking revelations slowly evolve.  It also contains a sense of depression and loneliness, whether they come from the overwhelming city or the lost self-identity of Amir.

Overall I like how both the set and the light have built a solid base for the play to escalate.  I like this sober and peaceful style very much, because it creates a strong contrast with the high emotional intensity and the messiness of human emotions, and also gives a soothing feeling afterward.

PLOT & CHARACTERS:

The play really has racial diversity - there are Pakistani American (Amir and Abe), Caucasian (Emily), African American (Jory), and Jewish (Isaac) - which, in some sense, provides the ground for their conflicts.

There is a lot to talk about in terms of the plot and the questions it has prompted, so I will just choose a few that strikes me the most -

Cultural identity:  Isaac points out that Amir always goes against the Muslim culture so that he could wipe that part off himself and fit into the American society better.  However, this is just going to make people despise him more because people would think that Amir does not respect his own culture or acknowledge who he truly is.  This makes me think of what Chinese students and Asian Americans have done to fit into the American society.  I have met people who constantly talk badly about China and look up to the US government and the US society.  It is silly to accuse one's own nation on everything and it does not make them more popular.  Different from this extreme way, some people try to "Westernize" themselves.  They work very hard to get the right accent, or play certain sports or listen to certain genres of music...  Abe in the play, for example, has changed his full name into a Western one and gets scolded by Amir.

Planted in Your Soul?:  At the dinner, Amir is accusing the Koran of allowing wife-beating, while after he finds out about Emily's affair with Issac, he actually hits her.  The playwright is very smart to write this, prompting the audience to think about the differences between Amir's desirable self-image and his true self.  Part of this comes from the denial Amir has for his culture, which has blocked him for years from recognizing himself.  This part shows a very intense struggle inside Amir and a very vulnerable, truthful side of humanity, because many people choose to fight some part of their surroundings and some part of themselves and it does not quite work.  This also leads to the sociological question of whether a person is defined by his or her own will or everything around him/her.  I deeply appreciate the playwright's choice of writing this and was very inspired.

I Wish Everything to Be Good:  Emily is quite a person of such kind.  However, it does not come out well at last.  She asked Amir to give the mosque leader legal support just for her sake, and Amir was doubted for this act and subsequently lost his job.  She wants the world to see the beauty of Islamic art, she is an attractive lady, she prepares the food for the special occasion, and she covers up her own affair...  There is something in her personality that I found miserable and warning, but I cannot really explain.  Her intentions do not turn out as she expected, and that is why I wish at certain points I have a stronger perspective and fight for things for myself instead of for others.

Another note to self-identity - having been in an international school and having studied abroad during summer, I have also thought a lot about and struggled with my own cultural identity.  At last, I learned to be at ease with myself.  I value the culture(s) I grow up in as a unique part of me that differentiates me from others, instead of something that needs to be wiped off.  And I love to educate people about my country, my city, my life and so many things.  I really need to make the combination of Chinese culture and Western culture on me special for myself and not to judge it as a bad thing.

ACTING:

The actors did a really good job.  I like how grounded each of them was, and they certainly developed very distinct characters with their acting.  They delivered the lines at a medium speed and their movements were also very confident and calm.  I sometimes feel that their reactions were held back a little, but I like that the acting is a bit understated, which also matches the age and the status of the characters.

I remember the moment when Amir got a shocking piece of information, he was holding his Scotch bottle and he turned his entire back to the audience.  It is generally said that actors should only face the audience, so this move is deliberately designed, and I love it.  I think it showed the strike Amir got from the information, that he lost control inside him, but turned back to maintain his composed image in front of everybody else.  The back figure of him - a man with a solid build in an expensive suit - hit me with a feeling of powerful misery.  I want to explore how different body postures contribute to the storytelling in my own directing work, and combine it with Laban efforts as well, which I learned during the summer.

Another moving moment for me was when Amir hit Emily.  He slapped Emily, which brought Emily to her knees, and then hit her two more times.  Slapping is a great way of showing the slapper's higher position in the relationship and taking away the victim's power.  And the hitting came afterward showed Amir's uncontrollable rage.  This was a very intense moment, and I love how stage combat contributed to the storytelling.  I was heartbroken because of Emily's reaction - shocked, hurt, deserved, but most of all, realized the side of her husband that she was never willing to see.

Right after this, Abe came into the apartment.  He was genuinely concerned about Emily and was angry at Amir.  I could see that the actor was truly reacting to what he saw and this added to his good acting throughout.  In the play, he was more impulse-driven than the other four because he was younger and was not in this social group of decent, upper-class people.  The actor really brought these genuine and empathetic characteristics out.

In conclusion, I enjoyed the play "Disgraced" both times.  Although I knew the plot from the first time seeing it, I was still deeply moved and inspired by my second view, and I had the opportunity to discover more about the stage and the acting this time.  I remember in the Q&A session with the cast at our school, one of the actors said, Theatre may not solve social issues, but it can bring people to start to look at the issues more.  That is the reason why this play is so valuable.

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