Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced drops bombs at regular intervals to unnerve, to disarm and, most of all, to confront. It is a response to the undeniable horrors around us that involves no sugar-coating, and no rose-tinted glasses.
We can all agree that everything is not quite coming up roses in the world today, with terrorists blowing up cities everywhere, and people waging war against one another, all in the name of race and religion. There is no denying that at the root of these catastrophes is hate. Hate that comes in a manner of guises and with a range of justifications, but ultimately it all boils down to the simple truth that people are prejudiced and destructive. This is difficult to hear, because life is impossible without believing that humanity is good, so we embrace hope with a kind of blind naivety and evade the truth in order that we may get out of bed and be happy. Akhtar demolishes those delusions, and serves up racist hate plain as day.
It is a stunning production, with Australian actor Sachin Joab in the role of Amir, one of the most important characters to have appeared in recent theatre history. Amir’s internal racism is ubiquitous but virtually never brought to light in our cultural landscapes. There is shame, fear and danger associated with his story, so our impulses tell us to keep it buried, for we are afraid of the controversies he represents, and we worry about the people he offends.
Joab is exhilarating, authentic and alluring in his depiction of the Pakistani-American caught in a moment of crisis. The actor brings extraordinary illumination to the tremendous complexity of his part, presenting a great deal of insight into a psychology that we all need to know. His work is emotional and vulnerable, but the actor is also able to convey an unmistakeable menace that is central to the play’s effectiveness. Joab overwhelms us with his talent and conviction, and leaves an indelible impression with his remarkable grace.
I asked Joab about the process of relating to his character, and whether there were any similarities between himself and Amir.
“Regarding the actual content of the play Disgraced, the role of Amir has many parallels with my own life — one of which is the idea of ‘identity’ and ‘integration’. Amir is an American from a Pakistani background and does everything he can do to fit into American society but ultimately reaches a point of being lost and in limbo between both cultures. I am an Australian from an Indian background and have done everything I can do to fit into Australian society but have often reached points of being lost and in limbo between both cultures.”
I also asked if the play has changed the way he sees his place in the industry.
“I’m overwhelmingly happy to have been selected to play the lead role in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced at one of the most prominent theatres in Australia, the Sydney Theatre Company. However, it is an American play, not Australian. I would love for more Australian theatre work, as well as Australian screen to incorporate more roles for multicultural characters in non-stereotypical roles, as in the case with Disgraced. Ultimately, if I wasn’t the lead in Disgraced, I’m unsure if there would be any other theatre roles in Australian theatre for me. I’m unaware of too many roles out there that exist for someone of my ethnicity. As much as I am loving playing the lead role in Disgraced at the STC and looking forward to touring, the experience actually reinforces my view on the limited amount of Australian roles that are there for multicultural actors like me.
Credit: Prudence Upton/Sydney Theatre Company
As much as I love being involved in acting and grateful for the work I’ve received, I am a bit disheartened in the limited amount of work that I’m entitled to audition for in Australia. I’ve often been told by Caucasian friends in the industry that if I was Caucasian like them I would undoubtedly receive significantly more screen work. As small as the Australian screen industry may comparatively be to American and Britain, I often find that the Australian screen industry is even smaller if you’re not Caucasian. That’s a sad thing because apart from being obviously unequal and unfair, it’s also unrealistic. The simple fact that Australia is so multicultural makes it seem somewhat ridiculous to create Australian stories based within Australia and yet the cast are predominately all Caucasian.”
Unlike the UK, we have not yet come to a point of evolution where “colour-blind” casting is advocated, much less the norm. We are a Western culture that holds tight to its old canon of literary works, which feature predominantly white characters, and our lack of artistic sophistication and cultural sensitivity has meant that we continue to cast actors almost exclusively according to corresponding skin colours. Waiting for roles of colour to appear before actors like Sachin Joab can have their time in the sun is a deeply unfortunate circumstance. Our actors of colour cannot all wait for another production of Othello, butinstead must be included in every staging and be considered for any role available. The name of the game is acting, and to make believe is its chief obligation.
Disgraced runs until 4 June at the Sydney Theatre Company, and then tours Australia until 25 June:
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Suzy Wrong is an Australian transwoman of colour. She is Sydney’s most prolific theatre reviewer, publishing independently at suzygoessee.com