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‘Disgraced’ lights a match under questions of racial identity

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Alexandra Ralph and Amir Margsahayam in Disgraced.
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Four and a half stars

Disgraced April 6-9 at UNLV’s Alta Ham Fine Arts; April 14-23 at Art Square Theatre; days & times vary, $12-$20.

Given the wave of race-baiting poison that Donald Trump surfed right into the Oval Office, Disgraced matters. Racial identity isn’t only complex, but often contradictory and psychically painful, particularly now for Muslims—a useful lesson in empathy.

Crisply paced by director Clarence Gilyard (you know him as an actor from Matlock; Walker, Texas Ranger; and Die Hard), this Nevada Conservatory Theatre/Cockroach Theatre co-production of Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer winner—staged consecutively at UNLV and Downtown’s Art Square Theatre—sets up like a bad barroom joke: A Muslim, a Caucasian, a Jew and an African-American are having dinner. What transpires—before, during and after—is fleetingly funny and ultimately incendiary.

Glossy Manhattan sophisticates, they’re characters of a type—even stereotypes—but well serve a play designed as a timely social polemic. Amir Kapoor, a Pakastani-born, aggressively assimilated corporate lawyer, vehemently rejects his Muslim upbringing, despite the urging of ethnic pride by his American artist wife, Emily, who employs Islamic symbolism in her work. Reluctantly, after prodding by her and his nephew, Hussein (who Americanized himself as “Abe”), Amir becomes publicly involved in the case of a persecuted Iman, knocking his carefully crafted American self-identity sideways.

Into the mix come Isaac, a Jewish art curator, and his girlfriend, Jory, a black colleague of Amir’s. Gathering to dine at the Kapoors’ (Trevor Dotson’s tastefully sleek set), their veneer of civilized party banter grows blunt in subtle half-steps until Amir casually comments that 9/11 caused him to feel horror—and a touch prideful. Exploding in disbelief, Isaac rips Amir, who admits a tribal sense “in the bones” and defiantly challenges Isaac over defense of Israel.

Now Disgraced unleashes body blows aimed also at anti-Semitism and racism, as two twists ratchet up the stakes. In one, a sole “N” word utterance is devastatingly ironic. In the other, a sexual revelation unleashes an ugly physicality that starkly addresses violence and Islam. Relationships are imperiled.

As Amir, Anil Margsahayam’s open, boyish features make his plunge into rage especially unsettling in a fierce lead performance—inner and outer turmoil are both boldly illuminated—and Alexandra Ralph fuses a hint of white guilt into Emily’s heartfelt liberalism. They enjoy strong support from Brandon Dawson (Isaac), Alexis Hudson (Jory) and Jacob Samir Sidhom (Abe).

Disgraced poses a potent question: Can both intellectual rejection of poisoned dogma and the dark embrace of cultural tribalism burn within us without singeing our souls in tinderbox America?

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Steve Bornfeld

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