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Closeup: Meet Ahsan Ali of American Stage’s ‘Disgraced’

Bill DeYoung



Ahsan Ali, left, in "Disgraced" with Natasha Hakata, Madeleine Russell and Liam MacDougall. Photos provided.

At American Stage through June 25, Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced utilizes a five-member cast to tell the powerful, deeply uncomfortable story of a Muslim American who finds himself straddling two worlds – neither of which, it turns out, he completely understands.

The laser focus, however, is on Ahsan Ali, who plays successful New York attorney Amir Kapoor with a blend of intensity, bravado … and fear.

Ali, a Brooklyn-based actor, was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and emigrated to the United States in 2013. He was quite familiar with Disgraced before he auditioned for American Stage.

“It was the first play I read, ever, that gave me a well-rounded Brown character,” Ali says. “There was no underlining to it, just a human being a human. The thing that I was drawn to was the humanity, and the little doses of cries for help happening throughout the script, that Akhtar puts together in such an incredible fashion.”

In the 90-minute play, Amir and his (white) wife Emily (Madeleine Russell) entertain another couple, art dealer Isaac (Liam MacDougall) and wife Jory (Natasha Hakata) in their swanky Manhattan apartment.

Isaac is white. Jory is black. It’s important to know these things, because they all come into play as Disgraced unfolds.

The couples argue about race and religion. And class, and position. It’s post-9/11.

Amir goes to great lengths to distance himself from Islam, which he paints as an archaic religion, out of touch with contemporary times.

“I relate to a lot of things that are said via this character,” Ali explains. “The overall picture that Akhtar paints, I was extremely onboard with it. Being a Muslim, I’m not that close to faith any more. The conversations that happen around it, those are the things that pulled me into (the play).

“I do feel these things. I do understand these things. I do understand that upon religion there is so much trauma given to young adults growing up, and what they take of it, and the pressure points that they carry with themselves into adulthood.

“And that unaddressed, that could lead to this catastrophe that happens in the play.”

Shivan Patel plays Amir’s nephew Hussein, who’s changed his name to something more “American.”

Ali is one of five children born to Pakistani musical stars Salamat Ali and Azra Riaz. “I came from a very progressive home, so there was never a conversation about race in a way that there needed to be,” he says.

“There were conversations about religion, but it was more of ‘Hey, however you want to proceed, proceed.’ But I was also told that there were some things that we follow, and we adhere to, and do not question it.’”

Reading Disgraced, he reveals, “it really resonated with me when Amir was questioning all of this.”

Director Sharifa Yasmin uses a theatrical technique called Viewpoints to illustrate the internal struggles Amir is enduring. Viewpoints is an exploration of spatial relationships.

Sometimes – usually when someone verbally touches a nerve – the lights dim, and Amir goes into a sort of slow-motion standing crawl. Ali calls it “moving through molasses.”

The effect is eerie and disconcerting.

“Everything around Amir is moving in real time except for him,” the actor says. “It makes such a difference in how the audience is experiencing Amir’s journey.”

Audience members, Ali reports, often ask him afterwards what those stuck-in-time interludes are supposed to mean.

“What they take out of it is what I let them take out of it,” he says. “It’s come to a point where, as far as the original idea behind it, it almost doesn’t matter any more. Because it’s your perception of the situation, how you’re taking that piece in. And I think that’s the beauty of theater.”

Find details and tickets on the American Stage website.

















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