Interview by Aliyah Mohamed
Entering its final week in the Martha Cohen Theatre this month is the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced, a “taut, engrossing and powerful” dinner party debate about race, privilege, politics and identity.
The second play of the 2019-20 season for Alberta Theatre Projects follows Amir Kapoor (Shawn Lall), a successful Pakistani-American lawyer living on the Upper East side of Manhattan. He has also turned his back on his Muslim heritage.
Amir Kapoor is an emotional, challenging role, with a boiling anger that explodes on stage. Luckily, actor Shawn Lall was more than up for the task.
Why did you want to be involved in this production?
Because it terrified me! I was not familiar with Disgraced before Nigel Shawn Williams, our director, approached me about my potential involvement, but I distinctly recall the indelible impression it left on me when I completed my first read-through. It triggered such an effervescence of thought, feelings and questions – so many questions – contradictory and in kinship to the material. Exploring themes of culture, race, politics, religion and identity – self-formed or otherwise – within those constructs, all within a taut, roller-coaster of a narrative was a daunting, yet magnetic prospect. From an acting standpoint, also, here was an opportunity to inhabit a three-dimensional, complex, fully-formed and challenging character, written as a person of colour. A dream role, as it were, for someone like me. So, the decision, while deeply terrifying and leaving me in an initial place of ‘how-am-I-gonna-do-this?’ was ultimately very simple. There are some things you just don’t say no to. Disgraced compelled my involvement: to feel that fear yet to do it anyway.
How is this production bringing something new to western society?
For me, this play is a meditation, of sorts, on the latent and insidious effects of post-colonial trauma. A look at the cost of assimilation into the West at the expense of the self, the effects of unexamined and underlying tribal influences, the ruptures these factors create in the psyche when they are left devoid of introspection and reconciliation, and the resulting manifestations thereof. I don’t know if that’s particularly new, but for me it’s the first time I’ve seen it presented in such an immediate, compact, and visceral manner.
What was the biggest challenge about taking on this role?
This is a character who’s very being butted heads with almost every natural instinct that I have as a person. As a role, this is my Everest, which is something I fully recognized going into the process. What I wasn’t fully aware of was the actual cost of getting to the summit, or of even getting to a place anywhere near the summit. Right to opening night, there was a profound challenge in mining and personalizing the core of who Amir really is, intellectually, emotionally, mentally, and physically, and honouring these truths to their logical and self-evident conclusions. In addition to this, the core of his pain, frustrations, fears, and insecurities have all been hidden beneath a mask: he presents himself as who he thinks society wants him to be in order to, he feels, be accepted, assimilated, and be afforded the chance to climb that ladder of success – to live the American Dream. One of the tragedies of Amir, however, is that by leaving his true self unexamined – running from his pain, angst, and inner turmoil on his maybe well-intentioned but definitely misguided pursuit of happiness – he’s inevitably engendered a deep-seated level of self-loathing. He hasn’t done any sort of introspective work on himself by way of therapy, or what have you, to sort himself out and bring himself into harmony. It is this schism of self which actually prevents him from forming genuine connections — to himself, to others, and to the world around him — and from attaining the very happiness and success he desires. So, learning to differentiate and then navigate where Amir began and Shawn ended within all of this was a constant, frustrating, challenging, yet ultimately fulfilling and emboldening process for me. I’m a better person and actor for it.
What will the audience be thinking about as they leave the play?
Hopefully, they will be so constipated with thought that they will be compelled to talk about it all night and maybe even come see the show again to see what, if anything, starts to solidify and come forth as personal truth – pardon the imagery. This is a loaded play, so I’m sure the discussions will be many. At least that is my hope: that they will be thinking and, more importantly, feeling something at the end of their journey.
What do you hope the audience will take from this play?
The funny thing about the human experience, I’ve found, is that the more specific and personal an issue is, the more universal that issue often tends to be. You can never control what an audience will do or say upon exiting the theatre, and that is especially true with Disgraced. So, at the very least, it is my wish that this company succeeds in holding up a mirror to what is (for these characters, specifically, and for society, more broadly) and that we really give audiences something immediate and undeniable to think and talk about afterwards. Something that ignites the urge to share personal truths, maybe even those truths deep and buried and unacknowledged, in an effort to find commonalities, stimulate compassion, and breed greater understanding of ourselves and each other.
How is your character similar to you/different?
We’ve both been presumed to be something that we are not, solely based on our appearance. While Amir has fabricated an identity in an effort to eschew and mitigate such assumptions, I’ve learned to deal with those assumptions through genuine engagement, dialogue, and grace. This is a pretty common thread, in terms of what Amir goes through versus what I’ve gone through: I’ve experienced similar things, but have just dealt with them differently than he has. It’s part of what has made this such a challenge. We are very different people. In coming to understand these differences, however, I’ve been afforded a chance to safeguard against complacency in my own life. This play, and this character, have given me the opportunity to reflect on my own biases, prejudices, and tribal inclinations. Working on the self is a never-ending quest, and I’m thankful to this play, this character, to Ayad Akhtar, and to Nigel Shawn Williams for offering me the ability to grow as an artist and as a person within it.
Photo credit: Tyrell Crews, Sasha Barry, Shawn Lall and Samantha Walkes. Photo by Benjamin Laird. Set by Scott Reid, Lighting by Narda McCarroll, Costumes by Melissa Mitchell, Sound/Composition Design by Peter Moller.