An Interview with Director Nigel Shawn Williams
An immediate focus on identity and racial politics has skyrocketed Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced to becoming one of the most produced plays in North America. Cultures clash during an ill-fated dinner party, during which the character of Amir sees his fear, resentment and hostility to his Muslim upbringing come spilling out.
Writer Aliyah Mohamed had the chance to explore the themes of the play deeper during an interview with Disgraced director Nigel Shawn Williams.
Aliyah: The play begins with the portrayal of a western mindset that is refreshingly contrasted through a Muslim subject. Why do you think it’s important to have this contrast? How do you think this will impact the audience?
Nigel: Typically, most plays presented are seen through a white gaze, through a colonial perspective. I think it’s important and refreshing to see a play through the eyes of the ‘other.’ The stories centred on the perspective of other cultures are imperative for us to tell in order to constantly remind us all that we are all human. We all have fears, contradictions, grace and humour. We have to see a part of ourselves in others. Regardless of race, gender or ethnicity.
A: You had mentioned previously how it has significantly changed the way people of colour (POC) perceive the American Dream.
How do you think this has affected their psyche?
N: POC have been taught for generations that they are not worthy, that they are inferior beside the white majority. This has been a truth, and therefore a struggle for hundreds of years. The cost of this inhumane treatment over the generations can manifest itself in many ways, all of which are unhealthy. It causes a rupture in the psyche of POC that can either make them feel they must abandon their culture, their history, in order to assimilate to achieve what is told to us is the ‘American Dream’. This rupture makes individuals see themselves in conflict with themselves. It manifests itself into rage, resentment and mistrust, not just towards whites, but towards other cultures that we are now told we are in competition with. The contrast reaction to colonialism for POC, is to return to an unwavering pride of their heritage that blocks out and won’t accept or tolerate other cultures. The result of hundreds of years of colonialism is that we in the west have a created a hotbed for multi-cultural racism. We have entered a new era of tribalism.
A: I found it interesting how there were such a range of topics being dissected in a single play. Although I do think it’s necessary in normalizing Muslim subjects with a western narrative. As such, which topics do you think were the most meaningful / impactful and if possible, can you speak on your own understanding of why it is crucial to do so?
N: I believe an acknowledgement of tribalism is the first step towards us all talking about our own racism. Each and every one of us must recognize that we all have fears, and prejudices, and suspicions. They have been taught to us. Let us admit we are all human, and we’re all coming to the table with taught defenses for our own tribes (cultures, religious backgrounds, etc). Let us acknowledge that we all have rooted prejudices, if we can do that, perhaps it won’t create further distrust, it may take the veil off of ourselves so we can begin looking at each other as humans who have common foibles.
A: Last, what are the thoughts that you think young Muslims would leave with after watching this play? What would you hope to have the general public leave with after watching this play? What aspects of it stood out to you, and what do you think people should take from it?
N: I cannot begin to speak on what another culture may experience. Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, what have you. What I can hope for is that the play has created a beginning. A beginning for each audience member to look into themselves and ask hard questions about their prejudices, and to look across the way and to see another human being that may not look like you, but to begin to realize: they are very much you.
Disgraced runs until November 2 at Alberta Theatre Projects. For more info call our Ticket Office at 403-294-7402 or email us at tickets@ATPlive.com
Top Photo Credit: Sasha Barry, Shawn Lall, Samantha Walkes and Tyrell Crews. Photo by Benjamin Laird. Set Design: Scott Reid. Lighting Design: Narda McCarroll. Costume Design: Melissa Mitchell.