• Feb 15, 2018

About the Playwright: Ayad Akhtar

by Laura A. Brueckner

Ayad Akhtar is a consummately American playwright, in more ways than one. The story of his success is the stuff of which American dreams are made: born in New York City to immigrant parents, Akhtar found his professional calling, worked fiercely hard, created his own opportunities, and achieved singular success: the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which he won in 2013 for his play, Disgraced.

Of course, no one’s real life follows such a smooth narrative arc. Some of Akhtar’s successes originated in struggles he faced, and his relationship to Islam is no exception. His parents were not devout Muslims; they had come to the U.S. in the 1960s, and belonged to the more secular generation of Pakistanis that came of age before the military coup that installed Pakistan’s authoritarian Islamist government in the late 1970s. His mother prayed, but also was a doctor who loved Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash; his father was uninterested in religion, putting his energy into founding his own cardiology practice. Akhtar, however, felt a sense of cultural isolation in Wisconsin where he was the only Muslim kid at his school, different from the white, Christian boys and girls who surrounded him.

His response was to turn to religion. With a studiousness and intensity he would later direct toward his writing, seven-year-old Ayad became (as he says) “obsessed” with Islam—having actual dreams about the Prophet, teaching himself to pray, nagging his parents to take him to the local mosque. His parents were perplexed, but he found comfort in his faith. “I think it had a lot to do with trying to understand how and why I was different,” he has said, “and what that meant.” While he later drifted away from Islam—in interviews, he tends to describe himself as “culturally Muslim,” rather than a believer—his early, deeply emotional connection to the beauty and meaning of faith, combined with the genuine questions he encountered as an adult, have become the trademarks of his finest work.

Becoming a writer took more years of study and struggle. Part of the struggle was with the largely white entertainment industry. Akhtar first studied acting, attending Brown University and then studying under and assisting theatre pioneer Jerzy Grotowski; when Akhtar returned to the States, he taught acting alongside Andre Gregory. However, he saw in his early 20s that the field did not yet offer enough challenging, fully human roles for actors of color to make acting a viable career on its own.

So Akhtar headed to film school—he would earn his MFA from Columbia—and started writing. He and two friends would write a film titled The War Within, in which Akhtar would play the lead, a young American falsely accused of terrorist ties who becomes radicalized into terrorism.

His first novel, however, was far less successful: a 600-page tome that, by his own admission, was “awful”; even his friends couldn’t finish it. He scrapped it and wrote another from scratch, this time delving into his own lived experience for material, creating the well-received American Dervish. He then launched into theatre with Disgraced, which would vault from its premiere production at the American Theater Company in Chicago to the Lincoln Center, earning him the Pulitzer. Within eight months, he would complete three more plays: The Invisible HandThe Who & The What, and Junk.

Part of the struggle was close to home: as the child of two doctors, Akhtar faced family pressure to pursue a career more prestigious and profitable than “writer”; his mother urged him to become a neurologist, while his father made him promise to read the Wall Street Journal every day. Interestingly, this rigorous practice spurred in Akhtar an enduring interest in the rules and near-religious zealotry of finance that would deeply inform his plays The Invisible Hand and Junk. (It also helped him support himself, through playing the stock market with seed money from his parents.)

Akhtar's plays also share a classically American dramaturgy, clearly showing the influence of the narrative forms he grew up with as a kid in the suburbs outside Green Bay, Wisconsin: he describes Disgraced, for example, as “drawing on melodrama, potboiler, romantic thriller, situation comedy; his sense of story is “reflective of a kid brought up on TV, who spent all of college reading Ibsen and Beckett and Shakespeare.” In fact, in his early descriptions of The Who & The What, he called it “a comedy about two sisters and their father very loosely inspired by Taming of the Shrew,” and described its pace and energy as “Neil Simon with a PhD in Comp Lit.”

From the standpoint of content, many of his plays explore the equally classic American struggle between the individual and society. His main characters must weigh their own needs, discoveries, and truths against the community’s techniques for generating meaning and sustaining continuity. Of course, in Akhtar’s work, there are two communities at issue: a mostly white, Euro-derived, capitalist America structured by Western analysis, and the Ummah, or community of the Muslim faithful, whose traditions predate the other in both Akhtar’s personal experience and the history of the world.

All in all, he describes himself as a “very traditional storyteller” who wants, more than anything, to offer audiences an experience they can feel, emotionally as well as in their bodies. His play structures are direct and Aristotelian, depicting psychologically realistic characters pursuing conflicting needs that hurtle them into a climactic crisis, then following their progress toward the new understanding that that crisis necessitates. Akhtar hopes to create a similar experience in the audience—he has described this as “a kind of shattering of the audience, after which they have to find some way to put themselves back together.”