It was pretty common knowledge to all those seriously working in theater that when programming a season, the general rule of thumb is that if you have six plays, five of them had better be safe, crowd-pleasing favorites that will bring in ticket sales, and you get one per year that can be the fun, dangerous, risk-taking show that might not sell.
Disgraced at the Virginia Stage Company definitely falls in the risk taking category. It is also a prime example of why the traditional “use your ‘safe’ plays to pay for your ‘risky’ play” method of keeping your theater afloat is really a shame (and part of the solution is that audiences need to take more risks and purchase tickets to “unknown” shows- hint hint.).
Disgraced swings wildly from funny to uncomfortable to occasionally shocking, with (on the night I attended) more than one occasion for an audible gasp from the audience.
Their ensemble cast was directed by Khanisha Foster, and every moment of the show displays precisely what a caring, supportive, and attention paying person she must be. The play deals with topics like racism, religion, and fundamentalism; the Bible, the Koran, and the Constitution; and what people do when their friends and family listen but don’t really hear them. These subjects are difficult enough to talk about amongst close friends and family, never-mind delving deeply into them with people you have just met. It would be very easy, with too little care, for Disgraced to become a literal disgrace with the wrong cast, the wrong direction, or even the wrong design. It would also be very easy with too much care for it to become a 90’s after-school special. It really speaks to Foster’s skill, as she was responsible for creating a space in the rehearsal hall for the actors to be comfortable playing with these topics, and also to the trust the cast has in each other, that they were able to so successfully handle the heavy material in the show without losing the comedic elements which make the whole thing so real.
Since the topics in Disgraced are quite controversial, there is a talk-back community discussion after every show (which it was noted at the talkback I attended, is something that regional theaters really have quite a privilege to be able to do). Although the talk-back at the performance I attended did come off (especially at the beginning) as a bit mansplainy, once the audience warmed up to questions, the director really shined while explaining her vision, and discussing some of the more difficult concepts and challenges they faced in the rehearsal. A few of these talk backs will involve community panels or the cast instead of the director and VSC’s staff- more information can be found here as they update.
Though each member of the ensemble held their own, and each had their moment to shine, Joy Jones’ Jory was an exceptional character for me. Her choices really pulled both the comedic moments and the more serious moments she was involved in to another level. Also striking, Taha Mandviwala as Abe, who held his own with a strong Equity cast in every scene. The final scene in the play is mostly Mandviwala and Rom Barkhordar, who plays Amir, having a conversation about a recent interaction with the authorities, and it is one of the most serious, difficult, heart-wrenching moments I have seen on stage in a while.
Technically, Disgraced is a beautiful play. The scenic design by Blair Mielnik is a perfect rendition of a New York apartment, with an enigma of a painting as the centerpiece of the design. Most of the other details of the design are actually outside on the balcony, on the other side of windowed doors, letting us see enough realism to believe we are up a good number of flights in a highrise without distracting from the action. Lighting design by local designer Akin Ritchie was absolutely stunning. Ritchie’s designs are really unparalleled- we are lucky to have his skill in our community. I particularly was in love with his lighting in the final scene, with the “sun” streaming in through the above mentioned doors. Even the transition lights are carefully thought out, with the centerpiece painting and projections of a similar pattern causing the painting to take over our field of vision, and then slowly un-paint itself along with the plot. Also particularly notable are costumes, designed by local Meg Murray, and the sound design by Martha Goode. Murray’s clothing was absolutely perfect for each and every character- which is not an easy feat in a show which takes place in 2011. Goode’s sound design was perfectly natural, with the sounds of the city outside the apartment mingling in but not distracting from the action. Together the design and technical team really made up the other half of this ensemble piece, and it all flowed together quite well.
Disgraced is not a play which you might go to and expect to be entertained. It is, however, a play where you can go and be challenged- and that, really, is what local art should be doing. The fact that the cast and crew pulls off this difficult material so well I hope will assist in the community discussion which the play and the production team demand of the audience after viewing. Whether you stay for the talk-back, or head to your own personal group of friends for a private discussion session, I do hope that you see the show, and that productive, possibly uncomfortable conversations result. This is the type of art which asks our society to do the difficult and sometimes painful work of growing and changing.
Disgraced plays at the Wells Theater in Downtown Norfolk through April 22nd. Tickets can be acquired here.