The Portrait of an Artist
By Lydia Garcia
Playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and actor Ayad Akhtar was born in Staten Island, New York, and grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where his Pakistani-American family was one of very few Muslim families in their community. After kindling an interest in writing as a high school student, Akhtar discovered theatre as an undergraduate at Brown University, where he began acting. Upon graduating, he traveled to Italy to study acting under the famed theatre director Jerzy Grotowski before becoming his assistant. Once back in New York, Akhtar taught acting and earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in film directing from Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
It was at Columbia that Akhtar conceived the idea of and wrote the screenplay for The War Within, a 2005 film about a Pakistani engineering student in Paris who is radicalized into becoming a terrorist. American Dervish, a coming-of-age novel about a young Pakistani-American boy growing up in the Midwest, soon followed in 2012 to great critical acclaim. Three plays followed in quick succession in 2012: Disgraced, exploring Islamophobia and secularism in the Muslim-American community; The Who and the What, tracing the conflict within a household between a traditionally religious Muslim family and their more progressive daughter; and The Invisible Hand, investigating the collision of Islamist terrorism and capitalism. Disgraced went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013.
Akhtar’s novel and three plays became the foundation for a seven-work cycle that Akhtar is writing about the Muslim-American experience in the 21st century, which will eventually include one film, three novels, and three plays. Two novels are in the works and remain to be completed. The ambitious spirit of Akhtar’s planned body of work in many ways echoes the epic scope of August Wilson’s Century Cycle, a ten-play masterwork chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century.