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Ayad Akhtar: An American Writer

For those familiar with Ayad Akhtar’s play Disgraced, his play The Who & the What, a bittersweet drama about family, love, and the Prophet Muhammad, will come as a surprise. Disgraced became a cultural touchstone in a way that very few plays do. From its world premiere in Chicago in 2012 to its Broadway debut in 2015 and subsequent productions across the country in 2016, including at the Huntington — the ground underneath the play shifted. Speaking with The Los Angeles Times, Akhtar explained, “I wrote the play in 2010 and I didn’t think that that kind of degradation of rhetoric could exist anywhere but the theatre … But now we’re living in a world where what’s happening on stage is not all that controversial.” It takes a unique openness and thoughtfulness to write plays that both ride the wave of the zeitgeist and center on the intimate life of Americans. How Ayad Akhtar came to possess that generous perspective and to write several trenchant, diverse American plays is a long and surprising story.

Akhtar’s parents came to the United States from Pakistan in the late 1960s; both were doctors and both hoped he would be a doctor, too. His mother told young Ayad that when a teacher asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he should reply, “A neurologist.” That changed at 15 when he had a literature teacher who inspired him to become a writer. He spent his junior and senior years under her tutelage “reading everything under the sun,” including “a lot of very obscure modernist writers.” He left his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin for Brown University in 1988 with the goal of becoming a writer. There, he was drawn into the theatre scene after a friend cast him in a student production of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. He loved it. After graduation, he left for Italy to work with renowned theatre director and theorist Jerzy Grotowski, eventually becoming his assistant. After returning to the US, he taught acting with avant-garde director Andre Gregory, and by 2002 had earned a MFA in film directing at Columbia University. Striking an ironic note about his long apprenticeship, Akhtar once remarked, “I had this weird, avant-garde training that was all about process. And now I write these overtly audience oriented, well-made, traditional plays. It’s really weird how life is.”

All this time, Akhtar continued writing and growing. “There is an evolution that leads to the acquisition of craft and to the opening of oneself to the world. I think the big crossing for me was understanding. As a young man, I thought of art as self-expression… As I got older — and as life started to beat me up a bit — I began to understand that it wasn’t interesting for the art to be about me. It suddenly became much more interesting to be observing others and to see what’s happening in the world; for art to be this creative engagement. … I actually don’t think I came to be an artist until I understood that.” Around 2008, he began to confront his conflicted feelings about his identity: “It was a slow process of coming to understand how much I wanted to be European, how much I wanted to be white, how much I wanted to be things that I wasn’t. When I started to understand that, I had enough presence of mind to not do anything about it, but just observe. And as I observed, I metaphorically looked over my shoulder at what I had been running from, and it led to an explosion of creativity. I had been writing stories for a long time, so I think this inspiration manifested itself with craft built in — narratives, characters, textures, dramatic situations, and circumstances.”

The result of this slow process was indeed a stunning burst of creativity revolving around reconciling contemporary life with traditional Islamic culture — looking at what it means to be Muslim in America. Over the course of eight months in 2010, Akhtar wrote drafts of three plays: Disgraced, Invisible Hand, and The Who & the What. It was also during this time that he wrote the first draft of his novel American Dervish. Akhtar explains, “All together these stories are a picture; but no one of them is the picture. I would finish one, and I would go into the other. One work is a contradiction of the next, and is a response to the next, or takes the themes of the previous and develops them in a different way.”

Akhtar currently occupies a complicated space in the American theatre. As a first generation American he is pressured to represent his community in a positive light, but as an artist he is “interested in telling good stories and interesting audiences.” The Los Angeles Times writer Jeffrey Fleishman posited, “Akhtar’s work … examine[s], much like James Baldwin did for African Americans, the experiences, betrayals, and hopes of Muslim immigrants. He does not pretend to be the voice of such a diverse group… but he is shrewd and compassionate and understands the incendiary power of language both on and offstage.” Whether it’s the tragic downfall of a self-hating man or the bittersweet story of a woman and her father, Ayad Akhtar goes onward and outward, assiduously working to translate the untranslatable.

– LISA TIMMEL 


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