The Who and the What with Pulitzer Prize Winner Ayad Akhtar


 Ayad Akhtar won the Pulitzer Prize for drama last year for his play “Disgraced.” He will be speaking at the Studios of Key West this Sunday night. Admission is free.

Akhtar has also written a well-regarded novel (“American Dervish”) and co-written and stared in a movie (“The War Within”).

It is tempting to keep adding declarative sentences about Akhtar and stacking them like cordwood. To mention that he is the American-born son of Pakistani parents. That he teaches acting classes with actor/director/famous eccentric Andre Gregory (the guy from “My Dinner With Andre”). That he has a chair in his office that no one is allowed to sit in, because it’s where he imagines his characters sitting and talking to him. That baths are part of his writing process and he has been reported to take up to six in a day.

But stacking facts like cordwood creates a static, sturdy thing, and Akhtar’s work is largely about how things move and shift, and how it can be impossible to get out of the way when it all comes down.

The New York production of “Disgraced” starred Aasif Mandvi from the “Daily Show.” It would have been something to see, as the first act is very funny, centering on a smug-ish sharp-tongued lawyer yanking the strings of the world, his artist wife and his nephew who’s trying to talk him into something he doesn’t want to do.

The sharp-tongued lawyer thing is an archetype and nothing new, except that he is an American of Pakistani descent who’s rejected Islam, and who may not be as in love with himself as he seems.

The second act brings misgivings.

The third act is a hubris- and despair-fueled rampage in which lives are laid low, beliefs are toppled, stereotypes are simultaneously fulfilled and imploded, and lines are irrevocably crossed.

The fourth act is smoldering ruins.

Akhtar told the New York Times that one of his motivations in writing the play was to create a substantial role for an Indian or Pakistani actor with “rage and charm and intelligence and vulnerability.”

The great strength of the play is that it burns the house to the ground without offering much recognizable ideology to cling to. Not even human kindness. And maybe contemplating the ashes could seem a little bleak. But a play that well written doesn’t bring you to that place without purpose. There has to be a reason, a way to think beyond the end. You just have to figure out what it is.

Akhtar’s most recent play, “The Who & The What” opened last week in California, and is a comedy.

His talk at TSKW begins at 6 p.m. Seating is on a first come, first served basis.


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