Playwright Ayad Akhtar, born in New York and raised in Wisconsin by immigrant parents who left Pakistan in the 1960s, long resisted exploring religion in his work. But then he wrote a play whose main character hides his Muslim roots, and that play, Disgraced, won a Pulitzer Prize.
Akhtar grew up in a pre-9/11 era when “religious identity was less fraught than now,” the Washington Post‘s Nelson Pressley says, offering clues to the playwright’s earlier avoidance of religious themes in his writing.
By his own admission, Akhtar struggled to find his voice as a writer. But once he began noticing the ways in which his own Muslim background shaped his identity, he found a powerful theme that has since animated much of his stagecraft.
Disgraced — which the New York Times‘ Charles Isherwood says “bristles with wit and intelligence” — tells the story of a corporate lawyer who hides his Muslim roots from colleagues, to disastrous effect. It has been produced in Chicago, London, Berlin and Hamburg, among other cities, and it recently made its Washington debut.
Other plays by Akhtar cover similar territory, giving full scope to characters’ conflicted feelings. The Who & The What centers on a conflict between a Pakistani-American father and daughter and, in doing so, examines the role of women in Islam. The Invisible Hand tells the story of an American investment banker taken hostage in Pakistan and of the man who kidnaps him.
In 2014, Akhtar had three plays running on Broadway at the same time, a rare feat for a playwright.
Akhtar’s plays don’t provide easy answers to tough questions, and his observations on American Muslim identity sometimes upset fellow Muslims, he tells the Washington Post — but “it’s not like I am trying to be contrarian. I am just trying to write to what I think is really happening.”
Meanwhile, new projects are in the works. He’s writing an original series pilot (Capital) for the HBO cable channel and a play (Junk: The Golden Age of Debt), both of which promise to turn a spotlight on capitalist society.