The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright on his relationship to Jewish artists, “the simple sense of being human,” and experiencing his work for the first time along with its audience.
Standing over the stove in a baseball hat and sweatpants, the writer Ayad Akhtar is making chai. It’s the perfect antidote to a misty gray afternoon in solitary central Harlem. Chai is volatile—boiling liquids, agitated tea leaves, stinging spices—but also reassuring, always finally settling into a deep brown. It is a blend of tradition and intuition, mood stirred together with habit. And it tastes different every time.
Akhtar’s tea is strong and sweet. More impressively, it retains its heat for the hour that we discuss his writing, prizes, and current projects. Akhtar began his career in acting and screenwriting, but his debut novel, American Dervish (Little, Brown, 2012), turned swaths of post-9/11 American readers on to the pre-9/11 Muslim-American experience. Its narrator, the sensitive, ten-year-old Hayat, tells of his childhood curiosities, in particular the allure of Islam, which he gleans from the mystical stories his beloved aunt tells him each night.
In his play Disgraced, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, Akhtar’s protagonist is Amir, a South Asian-American corporate lawyer who has long rejected youthful notions of tradition, religion, and even ethnicity. The play’s five main characters are as distinct as cardamom pods from cloves; thrown into a pot on New York’s Upper East Side, they dance and hiss their opinions. Akhtar, who loves drama because it can be experienced in the body, insists that the play he spent four years writing came to life only when it did for the three hundred strangers sitting in the audience with him. “That’s the beauty and disappointment of the theater,” he says.
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The provocative Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that rips into all the thorny questions and forbidden topics, don’t miss Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Disgraced at Riverside 16 – 18 June. Click here to book now.