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EMAV Review: Passionate 'Disgraced' is rich food for thought ★★★★★

★★★★★ - Irresistible

The regional premiere of Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar, is the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the fourth creative collaboration between Nevada Conservatory Theatre (NCT) and Cockroach Theatre since the 2013-14 season. “In dialogue that bristles with wit and intelligence, Mr. Akhtar, a novelist and screenwriter, puts contemporary attitudes toward religion under a microscope, revealing how tenuous self-image can be for people born into one way of being who have embraced another.” (Charles Isherwood, The New York Times)

It is important to note that the author and protagonist (Amir) share certain similarities: both are of Muslim heritage, both are in their mid-thirties, both make their life and work in New York City, and both are brown-skinned men with experience of encountering racism-based prejudice.

All of the action takes place in the apartment of the central characters, Amir and Emily, on the very desirable Upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC (2011–2012). This section of Manhattan is widely regarded as “high end” – expensive dwellings, wealthy homeowners/tenants, upper-level status. For Amir and Emily (most particularly the Muslim Amir), to have a home here indicates not only financial and social position: it also seems to indicate an acceptance, a place in the dominant culture of the time / place / community that many non-whites can only dream of.

Disgraced centers on Amir, a Pakistani-American lawyer who has altered his last name to disguise his Muslim heritage. A fierce opponent of Islam, Amir must confront his prejudices, his fears and the deep-seated remnants of his upbringing during a dinner party that begins uneasily and ends disastrously.

His wife, Emily is painting a portrait of her husband that is inspired by the “Portrait of Juan de Pereda” -- a 1650 painting by Spanish artist Diego de Silva y Velázquez that is the portrait of the painter’s “Moorish” slave/apprentice, Juan de Pereda. Emily calls her work, “Study after Velazquez’ Moor,” and both works share similar implications about race relations, one of the central issues of the play.

Both experiences and assumptions of racism and prejudice define the actions and attitudes of almost all the characters in the play. While this is most apparently true of Amir and of his nephew Abe, each of whom has an experience of anti-Muslim prejudice and attitudes, it’s also true of Isaac. His relationship with Amir is, to some degree, defined by thinly-veiled anti-Jewish prejudice on Amir’s side, and similarly thinly-veiled anti-Muslim prejudice on Isaac’s. All three of these male characters expect to be hated and feared because of their skin pigmentation and/or beliefs about their faith/religion.

Director Clarence Gilyard artfully allows all of the comedy, passion and rage of this script to flow through the performances of his gifted cast. The talented acting ensemble includes: Equity actor Anil Margsahayam (Amir Kapoor: a US-born, Muslim-raised, merger and acquisitions specialist in a Jewish law firm); Alexandra Ralph (artist wife, Emily: a WASP, who uses Islamic imagery in her work and insists there is “beauty and wisdom in the Islamic tradition”); Alexis Hudson (Amir’s African-American colleague, Jory, who “favors order over justice”); Brandon Dawson (Jory’s Jewish husband, Isaac, an art curator who’s critical of modern Israel’s military actions), and Jacob Samir Sidhom (Amir’s nephew, Abe, who’s changed his name from Hussein Malik to Abe Jensen but maintains more traditional Islamic beliefs.) It is worth noting that Ms. Ralph, Ms. Hudson, and Mr. Dawson are current members of the MFA Professional Training Program with NCT, and Mr. Sidhom is enrolled in UNLV’s Theatre Studies Program.

The Theatre Department’s creative staff, faculty and students ensure exemplary work on all aspects of the production: the expansive, expensively decorated set (with a great view), is tastefully designed by Trevor Dotson; suitably stylish costumes by Katrina Hertfelder; effective lighting by Eric Haufschild, and fitting sound design by Joey Jevne.

As Director Gilyard remarks in his program notes: “We give to you, the Las Vegas community, rich food for thought… for nourishment, sustenance and entertainment. Warning! Food can, like the truth, be dangerous.”

Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar, is running through April 9th at NCT’s Black Box, 4505 Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas, 89119, then moving to the more intimate Art Square Theatre, 1025 S 1st St #145, Las Vegas, NV 89104 -- in the heart of the 18b Arts District -- from April 14-23.

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