Lessons for a divided society

Gaurav Kripalani and Jennifer Coombs play husband and wife in Disgraced.
Gaurav Kripalani and Jennifer Coombs play husband and wife in Disgraced.PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

The Singapore Repertory Theatre puts on a neat staging of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Disgraced

REVIEW / THEATRE

DISGRACED

Singapore Repertory Theatre

KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT Wednesday

Nearly five years before the election of the anti-immigrant Donald Trump to the White House, playwright Ayad Akhtar exploded the myth of tolerant, multi-ethnic America in the Pulitzer Prize- winning play, Disgraced.

Neatly staged here by the Singapore Repertory Theatre, Disgraced starts as a civil caricature of upper-class America at dinner.

Two of the four diners are painfully politically correct. Isaac (Daniel Jenkins), a white, Jewish art critic joins his protegee Emily (Jennifer Coombs) in arguing the merits of Islam. Their spouses are realists. Emily's husband Amir (Gaurav Kripalani) knows his law career will be ruined in post-9/11 America if he reveals his roots. Isaac's wife and Amir's colleague Jory (LaNisa Frederick) is black, so one assumes she knows the score.

Knives flash over fennel salad. Blood is drawn well before the meat course - which is pork tenderloin, to indicate just how modern Isaac and Amir are. The veil of political correctness is lifted to reveal the naked truth: that coloured minorities are still not truly equal in the United States. They occupy their positions only through the grace of the white majority.

Words and blows are exchanged. The myth of liberal America collapses. The catastrophe is a joint effort. All are shaken. None knows how to begin to rebuild.

The production design by James Button echoes the conflicting influences in any multi-ethnic society as well as Amir's almost complete rejection of part of his identity. Shelves hold a statue of the Hindu deity Shiva given to him by his boss. Emily's painting on the wall echoes Islamic art, but not Amir's taste. A rug that looks like a prayer mat decorates a sofa. The only thing Amir seems to own is the liquor cabinet, perhaps a finger to his observant Islamic family.

  • BOOK IT / DISGRACED

    WHERE: KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT, 20 Merbau Road

    WHEN: Till Dec 4, 8pm (Tuesdays to Sundays)

    ADMISSION: $35 to $60 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: Rated M18 for mature theme

The sound design by Jeffrey Yue - Ctrl Fre@k does the job, but city noises could filter in more obviously when the windows are opened. This would enhance the idea of the bubble Amir and Emily occupy.

Director Nate Silver, who has worked with Disgraced since its off-Broadway staging in 2012, gets the best from the cast.

Singapore Repertory Theatre's artistic director Kripalani makes an assured return to the stage after two decades behind the scenes. His smarmy Amir is slowly but surely divested of a slick skin to reveal a confused and vulnerable outsider dying to fit in.

Ghafir Akbar is similarly convincing as Amir's equally unsure nephew, who swings between adopting a Jewish name and embracing Islamic fundamentalism.

Coombs and Jenkins are wonderful as characters so cocooned by their bubbles of privilege that they do not even recognise their patronising attitudes.

Frederick as Jory is delightful and unfortunately under-used. Hers is the character least fleshed out and most written to stereotype. This may or may not be a deliberate choice by the playwright, but still #BlackLivesMatter.

Disgraced, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013, airs outrageous statements that the writer never imagined would one day be commonplace and public.

Akhtar told The Straits Times: "The degradation of language, people's civility, the language as a conveyor not of meaning and aggression - I could never have imagined that that would happen in real life."

Disgraced prophesied and illuminates the deep divides in American society. There are lessons here for any multicultural nation, including Singapore. The play shows that divisions exist and that all are responsible for digging or healing them. It shows that anger may be justified, but when it is given free rein, unforgivable things may happen.

What then are the marginalised to do and what is the duty of the privileged?

In the play, hiding one's rage is not the solution either. Perhaps the only way forward is to offer grace instead of disgrace - to acknowledge, apologise and finally forgive for the sake of a shared future.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2016, with the headline 'Lessons for a divided society'. Print Edition | Subscribe