On November 11, 2021, Peace Mountain Theatre Company will be opening their new season with Ayad Akhtar’s acclaimed play “Disgraced” at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. This production marks the company’s return to live performances since the pandemic. The play was first produced in 2013 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and an Obie Award for Playwriting that year. It received a Tony Award for Drama in 2015.
“Disgraced” follows a corporate lawyer, Amir Kapoor, who seems to be living the American dream. He is successful, happy, and in love with is wife. When he tries to help his nephew defend a person of the Muslim faith, things begin to crumble. The play looks at the problem of coping with assimilation and yet still not losing your identity.
Bill Hurlbut, whose past work at Silver Spring Stage, PMTC and Rockville Little Theatre, has received many accolades and will be directing this production. Appearing in the cast is Emily Joyce as Emily, Omar LaTiri as Amir, Amber Champ as Jory, David Dubov as Isaac, and Hamza Elnaggar as Abe.
Bill Hurlbut has been the director of numerous productions in the DC metropolitan area including “The Importance of Being Earnest” (2019), “Silent Sky”(2017), and “Omnium Gatherum” (2017) at Silver Spring Stage, where he also serves as Board chair. As an actor, his credits include Joe Keller in PMTC’s 2016 production of “All My Sons,” WATCH-nominated performances in “The Crucible” (2018) and “Other Desert Cities” (2014), and a WATCH-winning 2014 performance as Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at Rockville Little Theatre. Bill earned a B.A. from Miami University and an M.A. from Ohio State University, both in theater, and he studied acting at HB Studios in New York.
Directors sometimes choose their plays in community theater and sometimes they are chosen by the theater’s board. Which one would best describe the process at you went through at Peace Mountain Theatre and also tell us why you wanted to direct “Disgraced”?
Hal and Laurie Freed tried several times in recent years to get me to direct for PMTC. In 2019, they came to me with “Disgraced,” a play that had strong visceral appeal to me. I saw the 2016 production of the play at Arena Stage and was drawn to the strong audience reactions in the talkback after the performance. A play with that kind of audience engagement appeals to me. I do theater specifically to affect people, to make them pause, to move them emotionally and intellectually. “Disgraced” does that very well.
When I agreed to direct the play in the summer of 2019, it was just two years after I had directed a play with a similar post-9/11 theme – “Omnium Gatherum” by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros at Silver Spring Stage. So, the issues and images of the period were still very fresh in my mind and I thought I could make use of that. Then the pandemic intervened and the production was delayed. At this point, my view of the play has shifted considerably due to COVID, the racial reckoning of the past 18 months, and the political turmoil of the past few years. I am sure audiences will bring something different to the play this time and I am eager to see how that affects their experience of it.
“Disgraced” deals with the struggle that American Muslims have fitting in to American society. What do you think are the biggest hurdles that non-Muslim Americans must conquer that would allow them to feel accepted in their communities?
We need to get over our suspicions and actively work to correct our misunderstandings about Islam. The Muslim world is vast and every bit as diverse as that of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, or secularism. To dismiss and disrespect almost a quarter of the global population for the acts of the misguided few is immoral and unworthy of our highest aspirations as humans.
Besides “Disgraced,” what is the play you most enjoyed directing? Acting in?
I have had many wonderful experiences in theater over the years. My favorite directing project was Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky” at Silver Spring Stage in 2017. That play tapped into something very strong, the awe that we feel looking up at the night sky or looking at the spectacular photos from the Hubble Space Telescope. The feminist theme also coincided with the Women’s March that year, giving it a special topical resonance for the performers and audience.
That kind of connection is impossible in the virtual world we have all tried to engage with in the past 18 months. The virtual world is a theatrical desert. True theatre—the kind that grabs audiences and moves them to a new place—cannot survive there. It is a wonderful feeling to be coming out of this time. I have missed the creative process, though I am only fully realizing how much I missed it as I have been working on “Disgraced.”
As an actor, one of my greatest pleasures was a small part in an amazing musical about the life of Bob Marley (called “Marley”) at Baltimore Center Stage in 2015. As with “Silent Sky,” current events gave the production special meaning. While we were in rehearsal, Freddie Gray was killed. The day after the riots that followed, the cast of “Marley” went to the burned-out CVS just north of the theatre and sang for the neighborhood. That moment, and the lively, uplifting performances over the next month were inspirational. A Jamaican friend of mine recently reminded me of how special those performances were and of the impression they made.
Is there a play you would like to direct someday?
I don’t have a bucket list of plays that I want to direct. My interest in directing any play is stimulated by a strong emotional connection to the central emotion or theme. That is what drew me to “Disgraced.” Disgrace and its companions, shame and guilt, are strong negative emotions that we all push hard against in various ways. A recent episode of NPR’s “Hidden Brain” shed some light on these emotions, noting that when we feel guilt, we believe we have done something bad, but when we feel shame, we believe that we are bad. A reasonable extension that applies to Ayad Akhtar’s play is that disgrace is when we feel that everyone believes us to be bad. That is the emotional realm to which the dominant culture in America has relegated myriad “others.” This “othering” is not just isolating the people we disgrace, it isolates us as well.
Would you rather direct or act and why?
I love both disciplines. They call on different sets of skills that I enjoy using. But I have come to prefer directing, because it is about engaging the audience in many different ways. With a solid conceptual foundation that is anchored in the play’s ability to transport an audience is a platform for multiple modes of creativity—employing set, lights, sound, costumes, and human emotion that come together under the watchful eye of the director. It is a wonderful collaborative feeling to bring it all together. And when it works, you get theatre magic.
“Disgraced” by Peace Mountain Theatre Company will be presented November11-14 and November 19-21 , 2021 at The Writers Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Chevy Chase, MD 20815, Thursday-Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm. For tickets go to this link. To find out more about this show and PMTC’s 2021-22 season, go to their website.
Note: PMTC does have Covid requirements which can be found here.