The controversial, noted, and Pulitzer-winning play Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar was addended by a “talk back.” I had the opportunity to see the performance, as well as attend the discussion, which is something I will generally skip. After all, you can expect a lot of very dull sentiments at these things, from the audience, the MC, and even from the worn out actors. However, from curiosity I hung around just long enough to be entranced not by what I heard, but from the combination of vehemence, personality, and enlightening incoherence (table talk, if you will) from all parties.
I knew something was afoot from the MC’s technique of opening the conversation by asking the audience to word associate based on the characters, wherein out of the string of predictable words, including “passionate,” “confused,” and “suffering”, the label “stereotypical” was included by one charmless fellow. This one stuck out because if there is a word that simply cannot be applied to this very, very strong piece, that was most definitely not it. Someone, in other words, had an axe to grind. I was intrigued.
The play itself opens in a lower upper class apartment on a set sharply reflective of its Manhattan location. From the decorative modern artwork – which would neatly play into the plot – to the amazing, unused kitchen, to all the white plaster and designer furniture, to the balcony that a Master of the Universe could well survey his hunting ground from, complete with sounds of traffic when the door was opened, we were told with precision and authority exactly what world we were in. The characters defied their background. Lawyer Amir stood, pantless, being painted by his Islamic art obsessed and white wife, Emily, in an imitation of a famous Velazquez. When all was said and done, Amir had been dragged into the trial of possible terrorist, had lost his potential partnership, confessed to a rivetingly real interior dialogue, beaten his loving, faithless, deluded wife, and was comforting the somewhat unwitting agent of his undoing, in yet one more scene where the personal had met the political in the most painful and profound way. There was nothing stereotypical about this piece, which, but for one significant flaw, is a modern masterpiece by a very brave writer who has earned every accolade.
Which, all in all, was just another reason not to listen to the squawkings of the audience, who, after all, were at their best and most dignified listening, but I could not help myself. I didn’t have to wait long for a reward, as the indignant fellow who came up with the deluded description of both Amir, and I think in his mind, the play and the playwright, insisted on taking the mic first. He told us, unnecessarily, in that way that people like to do to give themselves the illusion of authority, that he is Muslim, and that he was on a date with his wife, and that his evening had been ruined by the simplistic, offensive portrayal of Islam. He went on and on for several minutes, in the way those that enjoy being offended do, although his argument amounted to no more than what I just wrote. He received thunderous applause for his conceited response, which was banally curious.
The mic was passed on to a few more people in the seats, but everyone knew, or should have known, what was looming: the actors were itching to answer the charge brought by the offended man. Finally the MC had the mic brought to the stage, and we heard the response.
Unfortunately, the actors could not summon much return fire except for their own personal feelings, unintentionally evading the complaint. Two responses were still noteworthy. One, the actor playing Amir, was very forceful in his disagreement, even if he could not explain himself cogently. Second, and perhaps most interestingly, the actor who played Abe/Hussein, announced that he, in fact, was Muslim as well, and had struggled with the play and his part in it, a character whose self-esteem was bound up in the classic ressentiment of the seemingly oppressed: a powerful and key, if minor, role. He openly wept and rubbed his eyes, pausing uncomfortably before finally finding his way forward in defending the play.
Yet the answer to the offended man’s diatribe – which he would return to in an even more wrong-headed speech later – was so simple, so easy. In fact, I suddenly grasped a simple something that my years in the theater had not yet revealed to me in its fullest: actors are very akin to athletes, and are performers, not thinkers. Asking them what they think outside their own character, which they ought to inhabit as completely as possible, and therefore even at the expense of other details, is a little unfair. The best defense of the play was not to be mounted by them tonight, despite the gaping invitation made by the angry man.
The answer was simply this: plays are composed of characters, people whose motivations reveal the plot and the moral of the work as a whole. You cannot take a line or a character or a scene from a piece of art, which only functions organically, and suppose that is what the author intended as propaganda for his belief. End Date Night Monologue.
But no. There is evidence that even logic would not have quieted our hopping little tyrant. The offended man opened his second lament by lying to himself and others when he tried to concede, “I understand this is a play.” Then he went on to say that he had expected his problem with it would be resolved when the pro-Islamic Abe/Hussein would upbraid Amir for straying and thereby confirm the essential goodness of his preferred religion. Gag me with a headscarf, hypocrite.
Anyone can see, yet no one seemed able to state at the time, how backwards he had it. In fact, when Abe/Hussein instead finished the drama by blurting out his acquired and interiorized grievance, the sense of “disgrace” that some Islamists have from historically having ceded cultural ascendancy, the noble playwright had gone even deeper into his subject. Ahktar had turned the kaleidoscope one last and unexpected time, obviating the easy answers. Here it was: good, no, great, writing at work in the trenches of our contemporary struggles. In other words, what this fool on a date really wanted - his world views confirmed after supper, like a pleasing and moist baklava - was not happening.
No such luck, and I was glad for it, even if the cast could not summon up more than empirical feelings on their association with the work, and some pandering blather about right wingers to assure the audience of their personal virtue. I can’t entirely blame them for this last meandering, especially when the audience, in fact, had revealed themselves as the worst panderers. Many of their turns at the mic were attempts to sooth the wild beast, disrespecting his essential position in a way that, as much as I detested his argument, I could not endorse. Conquer your enemy, or in this case, his position, by knowing and confronting him honestly.
At this point, you must be wondering, why do I go on like this in a poker blog? Well, first of all, it’s mine and I can do whatever the hell I want, but more importantly, there are lessons for the poker player in these all too real conflicts. Poker is at heart a relational game. It is the opposite of Solitaire, despite using the same deck of cards. To best play poker, you must account for as many variables as you can, stepping outside your own subjectivity to truly understand the situation.
This works both strategically and as mental game. D’Artagnan, the slightly ridiculous fourth musketeer of the Coven, loves to, as he puts it, “go to level 29,” which, I now believe, is a cool code name for an ATM withdrawal. The level you want to be at is one ahead of your competition. Level 29 is only valuable if your opponent is on level 28. To be clear, five dollar games rarely go past level two, period. Sorry for the finality, but if you think differently, you are finding ways to lie to yourself.
Just like the offended man is. He doesn’t even understand the nature of the play, the play he just witnessed, or his own views, in part because he doesn't want to. He verbally confirms that he wishes the play to end with a pro-Islamic message, yet says, with bravado, that he expects nothing like that, that we are “not in that world.” (Thank God for that!) He cannot win his little war, and neither can you win yours on the felt, if you take highly subjective positions.
Then, just as in the forums or in the games, our misconceited fellow goes on tilt, unable to resolve his misconception of reality with the evidence presented to him. During round two, he shakes his finger threateningly at the cast and audience, probably oblivious to what he is doing and lost in his sense of wounded self-love. He rails at the injustice of the world and blames others around him. Sound familiar, O poker player complaining about that terrible 60/40 you somehow lost?
Deeper than this, as I observed the play and the discussion unfold, I was struck by how nonmonolithic our society is. Just as Disgraced so effectively unraveled the lives of its characters, so too were the fractures between all the individuals in the theater plainly revealed. The same is true for poker. There are no easy answers, and therefore, no true consensus. Poker is not solved, despite the hand wringers and Chicken Littles: there is room for ever more depth of understanding and strategic adjustment. As much as I believe in what I post at any one time, I am equally unsure of it, because the answers are nearly impossible to precise. As has been restated a million times and in a million different ways, the more I learn, the less I know. I apparently have over a thousand posts on Red Chip and I wish I was allowed to erase them all. The paradox in life and in poker, is that to even begin to understand, one has to bear in mind, essentially, the remote possibility that the offended man has it right, or that the guy who deliberately and repulsively spells both "your" and "you're" with "ure" has a point. It’s unlikely of course, but to weigh all the factors of an argument or a poker situation, one must be able to keep contradictory and seemingly mutually exclusive propositions in one’s mind. Our game is a truly complex and purposeful reflection of life.
As for me, I really wished this fellow’s evening was ruined. However, it was not. He got to get everything off his chest, several times. The lumpkins behind him ferociously clapped him into some sense of comfort; the actors did their best to assuage him. The congregation, under the hallowed proscenium of ideas, bent over backwards to accommodate one crank in their baffled need for consensus and identity security. One hand washes the other: one more disgrace. The world is a poker table and almost everyone is, naturally, a fish.
Meanwhile, and good for me, the humor increased. A woman stood up, and while it seemed to go over the heads of even the cast, she managed to say one of the funniest things I have ever heard in a theater – and that’s amidst a pretty strong field. After she gave us her obligatory background (Christ on a Frisbee) she tried to compliment the players. “Everything was so real, I really believed it! It was not like a play, more like a movie.” HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! I almost died laughing, and was suddenly in a spiritedly good mood, grinning maniacally and inappropriately for the remainder of the talk back. Talk back to this, peons.
I now wanted this discussion, the kind of event I try to avoid for my own sanity, to go on forever. I wanted the mic. I wanted to let the actors know how important theater could be, and for once, it truly rose to its potential place in the world, and about how proud they should be; and we knew this to be the case because of this offended man, provoked by their art. We all had roles in a night of triumph.
Now, what was the only real flaw in the play? My mother, who had insisted I go, so fortunately, with her, and I discussed it. It was her second time seeing it. She had been so impressed I got an all caps text from her the night before, wanting to immediately go back. She claimed it was the best play she had ever seen… suspiciously high praise from a former and trained actor.
Well, it was not the best play ever, and I think she knew that the second time around. What it had, most certainly, was all the bones of a great, catastrophic modern tragedy. It was Albeesque. The problem was, Albee’s plays and other great works in that remorseless vein have more than just bones, they have a whole body, lots of meat and fat, which both slow and peak and widen one’s involvement and interest. All the characters, even Amir himself, could have taken on more. In other words, Disgrace is in a hurry, too much of a hurry, to get to its point. It is a ninety minute, one act tour-de-force. It lacks subtlety in its insistence on being a wrecking ball and not merely a sledgehammer.
A small problem, though, in the big picture: the play is wonderful, and in ironical contrast to the livid man's ugliness. Its bones formed, perhaps in the intersections of disparate characters, a touch of the kind of pattern, the architectural, geometric, kaleidoscopic pattern, that characterized the long-off peak of Islamic art and civilization. Mr. Akhtar no doubt is aware of this. In any case, he has given us a true gift. A real love letter to humanity, to repurpose some of his dialogue.
A letter compelling enough to touch even upon all us performers on the felt. See it when you can.