Europe embraces Ayad Akhtar's Muslim-American plays

Ayad Akhtar
Ayad Akhtar

VIENNA • A decade ago, when Ayad Akhtar (above) was teaching acting classes in Austria, he would often pass the Burgtheater, the monumental building on the Ringstrasse that houses one of the largest and most influential theatres in the world.

In the intervening years, he has become one of America's foremost playwrights, winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Disgraced and seeing his work - which digs deeply, often discomfitingly so, into the Muslim-American experience - produced at theatres around the country.

Along with his success at home, Akhtar, 47, has forged particularly close ties to the German-speaking world, where his works are extremely popular, especially for a writer who is both American and living.

A 2016 production of Disgraced marked Akhtar's Burgtheater debut and won him a top theatrical honour here.

And in late May, he was back at the Burg for the local premiere of his 2014 drama The Who & The What, about the patriarch of a Pakistani-American family and his freethinking and outspoken daughter.

The biggest difference between this staging and an American production was that the family onstage was played by an all-white cast, with Peter Simonischek, the imposing 71-year-old actor best known for the hit film Toni Erdmann (2016), as the father Afzal.

"He was captivating and lovable and infuriating - in some ways, he was the most infuriating Afzal I've seen," Akhtar said afterwards.

"He did not shy away from anything that the audience might not like about him."

Not too long ago, this sort of casting would have given the playwright pause.

He had qualms last year when he found out - shortly before curtain - that the Hamburg premiere of the same work had also been cast entirely with white actors, although Germany has a larger and more diverse population than Austria.

"Then I saw the play and it was staggeringly beautiful," he recalled, sipping black tea at Nil, an Egyptian cafe in this city's trendy 7th District, soon after the opening.

"I saw a German audience see their families in this Pakistani family. And then I saw that play get started to be produced around Germany."

Subsequent runs have cast Muslim and Middle Eastern actors, as in the current production at Berlin's Vaganten Buhne.

"So, oddly, a premiere production cast with white actors created more opportunities in the long run for actors of my ethnicity," Akhtar explained, "which is one of the goals I've had with writing plays like that."

Even beyond issues of ethnicity, American playwrights working in Europe have to acclimate themselves to the visions of directors, who often adjust plays' settings and sometimes even alter the texts.

For The Who & The What in Hamburg, director Katrin Beier cut an entire scene and added a monologue written by Jacques Derrida.

"In a sense, she didn't do my play," Akhtar said. "But it was beautiful and, in my opinion, just as good as what I had written."

An earlier production of Disgraced, directed by Martin Kusej, was presented in Turin, Italy, and in Munich.

Kusej, soon to be artistic director of the Burg, and now at Munich's Residenz Theatre, set the play entirely on a square of carved coal.

"Martin deconstructed the play and I was humbled and encouraged at moments to see that my text could withstand the stress test. But not in every moment," Akhtar admitted with a laugh, adding that he does not disapprove of such disruptions.

"I do believe that directors tend to understand their audiences better than I can," he added.

"So I don't want to impose how a play should be done. And I have been surprised so many times by the innovations that the directors here in Europe bring."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2018, with the headline 'Europe embraces Ayad Akhtar's Muslim-American plays'. Print Edition | Subscribe