Mistaken Identity

Mistaken Identity

I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

—Nina Simone, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (1964)

I left Long Wharf Theatre’s opening-night performance of Disgraced feeling angry.

Not because I didn’t enjoy the play. I very much did. After a jittery start, the actors found a groove and delivered an electric telling of playwright Ayad Akhtar’s dense character study. Centered around corporate lawyer Amir Kapoor—whose hard-earned life, we find out, is falling to pieces—one of the play’s most special features is its characters’ intense, combative, occasionally humorous repartee. Brimming with unfiltered intellect, the four main actors—Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lowrance (Emily, an artist and Amir’s wife), Benim Foster (Isaac, a curator and potential benefactor for Emily) and Shirine Babb (Jory, Isaac’s wife and Amir’s colleague)—really seemed to grok their whirlwind dialogues. It was courageous of Akhtar to put these words into his characters’ mouths. It was courageous of Long Wharf to decide to stage them. And it was courageous of director Gordon Edelstein to let the intensity play out as unflinchingly as it did.

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The result was a performance that did for me what great drama is supposed to do: strike a nerve. By the end, Amir’s many-layered plight had affected me; it had become my own. I was angrier than he was at what had become of him, given the awfully unjust reasons why. Not just the big reasons—that he was doomed by racial prejudice, misplaced affection and psychological scarring from childhood—but also the more casual ones: that he was chronically misunderstood, despite great explanatory effort; that his conclusions gleaned via earnest reasoning and hard-earned experience so often fell on deaf ears; that people with far more dubious moralities treated him like a villain.

As the performance neared its conclusion, I suspect much of the audience, despite their more complete perspective, had joined the play’s other characters in turning on Amir. But to my memory, he was the only character who risked anything substantive to serve someone else’s interests; the only one who never advanced a lie; and the only one who never broke a compact—at least, not before the other party had already gotten started.

As we learn throughout the play, Amir has long been a trusty ping pong ball, batted around to service games he has no chance of winning. His mother emotionally abused him, saddling him for a time with religion run amok, which he’s spent many years trying to purge. Much of that time was spent working at his high-pressure law firm, where he tends to arrive early, leave late and pull his colleagues’ weight without commensurate reward. And his responses during the play’s escalating back-and-forths are delivered earnestly, without connivance, even as other characters—usually Isaac, the curator—often decline to take him very seriously, joking about his statements, for instance, or playing devil’s advocate to advance points it seems they don’t really believe, or using Amir’s admirable honesty as a bludgeon.

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The most memorable occasion of the latter happens in the long third scene, when he makes a shame-filled, glassy-eyed confession during a dinner party/knock-down, drag-out bout of aesthetics, religion, morality and politics. Upon seeing the news of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Amir says, the first emotions he felt were celebratory. In the moment he’s highlighting the latent grip the fundamentalist Islamic past he’s renounced still has on his psyche—a key thematic point that, quite fittingly, the others on stage simply misunderstand, being too caught up in their own reactive disgust to take its meaning.

Whereas Amir demonstrates an ability to critically assess and even reject his default allegiances, the others in his orbit never do. Yet he’s constantly cast, from within Disgraced and without, as a self-deceiver. The play is billed as a “tale about the consequences of denying one’s own identity,” and some reviewers have followed suit, suggesting that the story ultimately underscores the immutability or inevitability of some locked-in identity each of us has.

I see something else: a play that acknowledges the scourge of entrenched identity—its power to distort and obscure truth while we’re committed to it, and to bend us to its will even after we’ve chosen to leave it. I also see, in the play’s negative space, a ray of hope for those under identity’s yoke: that it’s the things you consciously, deliberately choose to be and do—not the things circumstances or people have chosen for you—that define your character.

Even if, in the end, nobody else sees you for who you really are.

Disgraced at Long Wharf Theatre
222 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
Matinee and evening showtimes through Sunday, November 8
(203) 787-4282

Written by Dan Mims. Photographed by T. Charles Erickson. Image depicts, from left, Shirine Babb, Rajesh Bose, Nicole Lowrance and Benim Foster.

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