Last post, I wrote about the opening of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced where Emily works on a portrait of her husband Amir. Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja serves as the inspiration for Emily’s portrait of Amir, and the two discuss Juan de Pareja and specifically the language that they use to construct his identity. The exploration of identity and the ways that other project their preconceived notions and ideas onto others is at the core of Disgraced, and today I want to look at a few other sections of the play that explore this theme.

The first moment occurs after Emily and Amir debate whether or not Juan de Pareja was Velázquez’s “slave” or his “assistant.” After Emily acquiesces and agrees on calling de Pareja enslaved, Amir moves the conversation one of Emily’s former boyfriends. He tells her, “I think you should just call your black Spanish boyfriend and get him to sit for you.” He says this, in part, because de Pareja was Spanish; however, the leads to a discussion the plays upon stereotypes and preconceived notions.

Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja

Emily tells her husband that she does not know if her former boyfriend is in New York, and Amir responds, “You don’t have to rub it in, babe. I know all men are not created equal–.” Here, Amir plays into stereotypes surrounding Black men’s sexuality, and Emily cuts him off, telling Amir to change his position so his pose matches that of de Pareja. Amir continues by reminding Emily that José “[b]roke your dad in,” adding, “I mean at least I spoke English.” There are two things at work here. The first is Amir’s use of stereotypes when discussing José. The second is the preconceived notions that Emily’s dad places upon José and Amir.

The next moment occurs after one of the partners at Amir’s law firm, Mort, calls him about something at work. When he gets off the phone, Emily asks how Mort is doing, and Amir says he hasn’t seen him in a while because he rarely comes into the office. Emily simply says, “Pays to be the boss.” This comment sparks another short exchange about language. Amir tells his wife that he basically does Mort’s job, and Emily tells him, “He loves you.” For Amir, “love” does not fit with how he sees his relationship with Mort; instead, Amir says, “He depends on me.” There is a huge difference between “loves” and “depends,” and as the play moves forward, we see that Amir’s choice of words corresponds to how Mort feels about him.

As the conversation continues, Emily still adheres to the idea that Mort “loves” Amir, pointing out the birthday present that he bought for Amir. This leads to one of the presents that Mort bought Amir, the statue of Shiva that I mentioned in the last post. Emily asks Amir about it and questions, “He doesn’t think you’re Hindu, does he?” Amir is a non-practicing Muslim, so Mort’s assumption that he is Hindu sparks questions for Emily, and Amir tells her that Mort “may have mentioned something once . . .” For Amir, it is easier for Mort to view him as Hindu than as Muslim because, as he asks Emily, “You realize I’m going to end up with my name on that firm?” The firm would then be Leibowitz, Bernstein, Harris, and [Amir] Kapoor. This is important because Amir admits, here, that Kapoor is “not the family name” so his mother might not care “seeing it alongside all those Jewish ones.”

We find out later that Amir’s last name is Abdullah, not Kapoor. He changes his last name in hopes that others will not judge him before they even meet him. The use of names and how names work to both construct identity and counter preconceived notions of identity comes up when Amir’s nephew comes into the apartment immediately after Emily and Amir talk about Mort and the law firm. When Abe enters, the stage direction describes him as “22, of South Asian origin. But as American as American gets.” Like Amir, Abe has changed his identity in order to survive in a post 9/11 America, in order to not become labeled.

Amir tells him nephew, “Come in, Hussein.” Abe wants Amir to call him “Abe,” not his given name “Hussein,” and he asks him, “You know how much easier things are for me since I changed my name?” Emily calls out Amir too, telling him that he did the exact same thing that Abe does, changing his last name from “Abdullah” to “Kapoor,” and Abe reminds his uncle, “You got lucky. You didn’t have to change your first name. Could be Christian. Jewish. Plus you were born here. It’s different.”

As the play progresses, Abe changes his name back to Hussein, discovering his “true” identity in the midst of the ways that other perceive him. After the FBI pick him up for supposedly being an extremist, he tells Amir that he changed his name back to Hussein, calling out his uncle for disguising who he is because of the ways that other view him. Amir asks Hussein if he feels like he’s doing something worthwhile, and whether or not pointing out “the plight of Muslims around the world is going to” do anything. Hussein cuts him off, telling his uncle. “It’s disgusting. The one thing I can be sure of about with you? You’ll always turn on your own people. You think it makes these people like you more when you do that? They don’t. They just think you hate yourself. And they’re right! You do!”

Hussein’s comments get to the heart of Amir’s struggles with his identity. He thinks that by hiding his “true” self he will be able to alter the ways that others view him. However, that is not the case. His continued obfuscating of his “true” self leads to the conflicts within the play. Amir views himself through the eyes of others, denying himself any “true” connection with himself. Denying himself any peace in the realization of his “true” identity. He works to fit in within a society that views him as a threat. He does not succeed, and his continued charade leads him to examine himself and search for his “true” identity. However, I would posit that his examination does not lead to any realization. Instead, Hussein comes to realize his “true” self, and the play ends with Amir beginning that journey as, after Emily leaves him because in his self-loathing he abuses her, Amir picks up her portrait of him, Study After Velázquez’s Moor, and examines it.

Here, the views of others come into full focus again and connect back to the beginning. He looks at a portrait which is itself a depiction of how Emily view him. Which is a depiction formed as a reaction to the ways that a waiter viewed him. The portrait serves as a lens through which we examine how we view others, and the play ends with Amir on stage looking at the portrait as the stage direction reads, “He takes a searching long look.” This concluding stage direction highlights that Amir searches for his “true” self amidst countless competing forces. At the end of the play, he has not found his “true” self. Yet, he is still “searching.”

There is, of course, more I could discuss. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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1 Comment on “Juan de Pareja and Identity in Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced”

  1. Pingback: How I Construct My Syllabi – Interminable Rambling

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