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Pulitzer winner Ayad Akhtar: Islam is 'ripe territory' for drama

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Ayad Akhtar

Ayad Akhtar's play Disgraced, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, receives its UK premiere at the Bush Theatre this week (22 May, previews from 17 May)

Congrats on winning the Pulitzer. How does it feel?
It feels a bit surreal, to be honest. As a young writer I'd think 'maybe I'll win something one day', but I still find myself doing a double take now that it's actually happened. It's both a tremendous surprise and an extraordinary delight.

Can you give us an overview of Disgraced?
It centres on a corporate attorney of Muslim American origin who has been hiding his Muslim heritage from his colleagues, and over the course of the play that comes out during a dinner party. So that's the central story but the play is also a kind of exploration of identity politics and racial politics in America right now.

Was it inspired by a real life event?
The idea for the play actually came from a dinner party I attended. It didn't end as awfully as the one in the play, but it did involve a very intense conversation about Islam and people's relationships changed noticeably during the course of it.

Why do you think Islam isn't often a subject of stage drama?
Well I think that's a very interesting point and not many people comment on that. It seems like terrain that is very ripe for drama, and yet oddly it hasn't been used very often. Maybe people are concerned they won't do it justice if they're not Muslim? That must have something to do with it.

Are dramatists frightened of tackling it?
Probably, because people get very upset when certain things are said about Islam and that can have political consequences. Ever since the Rushdie affair that seems to be part of the landscape, unfortunately.

What's your own background?
I was born in New York but moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin very early. My parents are from Pakistan and I grew up in a secular Muslim family. I got very devout as a kid but then went to college and read a lot of existentialists and questioned my faith in God and organised religion, and started wanting to become a writer.

Do you worry that your work gets pigeon-holed as dealing with the issue of Islam?
Sure, but I can't really spend any time thinking about that. I've just got to tell the stories I want to tell, and it turns out a lot of those stories right now have to do with Muslims in America. So if people say "oh he's that Muslim guy" then that's fine but I'm not going to make artistic decisions based on that.

Do you hope to get Islam involved more centrally in the cultural conversation?
I feel like on one level artists of Muslim origin have an expectation to play some public relations game on behalf of the faith, or perform a corrective, but the reality is that as an artist you want to have the freedom to wrestle with your demons and your passions, and to celebrate and criticise your traditions and your community. That's the case for artists of any origin who want to participate in the larger cultural project.

The play is set in New York - do you think it will resonate similarly in London?
I spend a lot of time wondering if audiences here will see it as a window on what's happening in America or as a story that reaches their own experience. Madani Younis (artistic director of the Bush) said he wanted to do the play as he felt it would speak to the Bush's audience, and as an artist I very much hope that's the case.

Hari Dhillon & Kirsty Bushell in rehearsals for Disgraced (photo: Simon Kane)

It's a brand new production at the Bush - has much changed?
I've made a few changes. I had the sense with the first production that there were certain things I hadn't quite solved in the way I wanted to. The amazing thing about the playwriting process is that you usually don't quite realise what you've made until you have a first production. That's often when you realise what the play is, and so sometimes your second production is when the play really finds its feet. That's certainly been the case with Disgraced - Nadia Fall (the UK director) is finding things in the play that I didn't know were there.

Do you feel on a slightly higher plane professionally having won the Pulitzer?
Probably, in terms of people having a modicum of interest in what I'm doing. It gives me at the very least the sense that I'm going to be able to continue doing this. And I hope that it can be a catalyst for my growth as an artist, with a little less pressure.

So what's next?
I'm working on my next book, I have a new play going up in La Jolla before transferring to New York and I'm also working on a film. I have so many stories that I want to tell.

Ayad Akhtar was speaking to Theo Bosanquet. Disgraced, which stars Kirsty Bushell, Hari Dhillon, Sara Powell, Nigel Whitmey and Danny Ashok, continues at the Bush until 22 June.


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