By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“O my god! What’s he going to say next!?”
It’s 2012 and Raoul Bhaneja and his actor wife Birgitte Solem are in New York watching an Off-Broadway audience watch a play. Everybody is tense, alert, engrossed: no oh no, don’t let him go there.
They’re watching a two-couple dinner party, in a chic Upper East Side apartment, fracture in scary ways they’d never expect from successful, highly intelligent, “progressive” people who might think of themselves as post-ethnic.
The play is Disgraced, by South-Asian American writer Ayad Akhtar — a novelist/screenwriter/playwright, whose name — pre-Pulitzer Prize and Tony splash — wasn’t exactly household currency in theatre circles at the time. What struck Bhaneja, the Toronto playwright/actor/blues musician whose Hope and Hell Theatre brings the play to the Citadel this week, was that “the audience doesn’t know what they’re supposed to think.”
Bhaneja was excited by that. “This is why you do plays! To engage people!”
Bhaneja, engaging himself and entirely unpretentious, had first noticed Akhtar via a blog post. The writer had talked about a South-Asian pal who’d gone to a Hamlet audition, and the improbabilities had struck him: “he’s never going to play The Man.”
“There were all kinds of connections for me!” laughs Bhaneja. For one thing, his ethnicity is mixed (his mother is Irish, his diplomat dad is from Delhi). For another, as Edmonton audiences know, he’s taken on the slings and arrows of outraged traditionalists and their casting practices himself — by doing a solo Hamlet that’s played here a couple of times, and toured the world.
So Bhaneji read Disgraced, and its unresolved (possibly unresolvable) complexities blew him away. So — this seems exactly like something Bhaneja would do, and why he’d name his company Hope and Hell — he contacted Akhtar and set up a meeting. Which is why he and Solem had figured out the “kids! parents!” situation and flown down to New York. An additional nail-biter for an evening of nail biting: “We had one night! And one of the actors was 40 minutes late for curtain.”
Acquiring the rights for Hope and Hell took a while. Disgraced moved to Broadway, and acquired a Pulitzer and Tony nominations. But finally, this past year, it happened.
The Robert Ross Parker production that brings Bhaneja back to Citadel after the 2015 run of his theatre/concert/memoir hybrid Life, Death and the Blues, arrives here after a much-applauded run produced by Mirvish in its high-profile alternative season.
Bhaneja plays Amir, a high-powered Manhattan corporate lawyer specializing in acquisitions. He’s an ex-Muslim of Pakistani descent up for promotion in a Jewish firm. His wife Emily (Solem) is an up-and-comer WASP artist inspired by the Islamic world and its design aesthetic.
Their guests are Emily’s Jewish art dealer (Michael Rubenfeld) and his African-American wife (Karen Glave). Which sounds like a setup, as Bhaneja agrees. The play, he says, is “deliberately stocked with different points of view…. You agree with one person, then with another, then with another.”
He muses on the notion that intelligence “is the ability to hold two opposing points of view in your mind at the same time.” Disgraced, he says, “pushes that to the brink!”
Which may be why 80 per cent of the audience, “instead of the usual 20,” tends to stay for the talkback sessions, as Bhaneja reports.
What Disgraced sets about “is creating engaging characters.” What it wilfully refuses to do — Bhaneja thinks this is its appeal — is “to tell you the feeling you’re supposed to have…. Two hours afterward, the audience is wondering what they think. The next day they wake up wondering. Whatever you think about it, you’re wrong by the end.”
“Answers?” Don’t look to the cast, Bhaneja laughs. “We don’t feel we can help you there, folks…. That’s what’s fun about it.”
Remember how your mom and dad always told you ‘don’t talk about politics and religions at the dinner table’.” Disgraced is what happens when “well-off, highly educated, privileged and successful people” ignore your mom and dad. It’s post-9-11 and combustible subjects like Islamophobia come up. Ethnic assumptions in this liberal élite are up for grabs.
“I’m not a tribal person, you think. I’m a progressive Western open-minded person who believes everyone’s equal. Right?” Disgraced “takes that assumption and pushes us against it.”
The play’s relevance hasn’t exactly leaked away. Current events have seen to that. And Canadians can’t exempt themselves, witness our own election with its divisive hijab controversy and the Conservative platform of informing on “barbaric cultural practices” into the social lexicon. Bhaneja brings up the name Kellie Leitch and her Trumpesque affinities.
“So many elements reflect our lives here,” in a country that prides itself on multiculturalism. The fear of “the other” isn’t limited to the country south of the border. The play speaks powerfully in Germany, with its migrant crisis, for example. Bhaneja has just been called to audition for a Singapore production of Disgraced.
“Its resonance continues to deepen,” says Bhaneja, who thinks Disgraced is well on its way to classic status. “There’s a weight to it.” He points to Arthur Miller and A View From The Bridge. “It was really good 50 years ago; it’s really good now.”
And its great strength is “a refusal to moralize and tell you what to think,” he thinks. “It doesn’t present answers…. But there’s an edge and brashness to it that’s not very Canadian.”
He encountered the play while doing final drafts of Love, Death and the Blues, in which our “half-white” protagonist resists the prejudice that he’s not black enough to be an authentic blues musician. “I was inspired by Akhtar,” says Bhaneja, “his boldness in facing the questions.”
He remembers his playwriting teacher at the National Theatre School (Sheldon Rosen) telling his younger playwright self that “whatever you write about now, you’ll be writing about forever.” It’s been born out. “I’m drawn to questions of culture and identity. All my stuff so far, and the TV series I’m trying to get going…. it’s central to what I’m trying to figure out. It’s what I can contribution to the theatre conversation.”
Has traditional casting, circumscribed by ethnicity, widened its embrace? Bhaneja, whose career moves from stage to screen and back again, pauses to consider. There are “positive signs, a more diverse perspective in characters, more reflective of our society. But I’d have hoped, 20 years in TVland, that it would be farther along than it is.”
“Being half-white has given me a double-sided access, to roles I wouldn’t have had the chance to do if I were darker.” He laughs. “It hasn’t been a bad thing. And it’s also who I am!”
The role he landed in the Jessica Chastain thriller Miss Sloane was, as written, “a 50-year-old white-haired textbook lobbyist.” And Bhaneja had thought “I’m never going to get this.” What he especially loved about the experience was hanging out with big-name actors who made time for the scheduling-busting complications of live theatre, John Lithgow and Sam Waterston among them.
If Edmonton has a special place in his affection, it’s partly because of Citadel’s Bob Baker stepping up to acquire the Hope and Hell Disgraced even before its Mirvish production. Partly it’s because Disgraced is the first time in more than two decades — since a Fringe tour of 1995 — that he and his wife have been onstage together; they’ve even brought their kids. “We can walk into work together! A great change of scene for us….”
Ah yes, and there’s the prospect of Die-Nasty on his nights off with a troupe of the country’s top improvisers, including Mark Meer and Belinda Cornish. The last time he was here, in Love, Death, and the Blues, “I had the best improv night of my life!”
Theatre: Hope and Hell (originally presented by David Mirvish)
Written by: Ayad Akhtar
Directed by: Robert Ross Parker
Starring: Raoul Bhaneja, Birgitte Solem, Michael Rosenfeld, Karen Glave, Gabe Grey
Where: Citadel Theatre
Running: Thursday through Feb. 12
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com