The following interview was conducted by Artistic Literary Intern Maggie Rogers.
Behzad Dabu, who plays Abe in Disgraced, was able to take a few minutes out of his busy show schedule to talk a little bit more about his experience with the play. Dabu originated the role of Abe in the first production of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced at American Theatre Company (ATC).
Seattle Repertory Theatre: You have been with this play the longest out of the cast. Would you talk a little bit about the process of how the play came to be in Seattle?
Behzad Dabu: ATC, American Theatre Company, in Chicago reached out to me to audition. And I had a job at the time that had me traveling a lot. So I was in Japan and I auditioned via skype at like two in the morning to make the time difference work in a conference room at a Japanese Hilton or something. At the time, the play was only a scene and a half, and they didn’t really have a finalized director. Then they got Kimberly Senior to direct which was so exciting to me because Kimberly and I knew who each other were from Columbia College Chicago. She taught at Columbia while I was a student there, but I never actually took one of her classes. I had heard how amazing she was and I was really excited about that.
Seattle Rep: Was Ayad Akhtar commissioned by ATC to write the play?
BD: No. PJ Paparelli, the late artistic director of ATC, knew of the play. One of his gifts was that he was good at developing new work and reaching out to find plays that capture the American moment. He really believed in the story and he thought it was a great vehicle for his company member Usman, who played Amir in the first production. And Kimberly was really influential not only in the directing of the play but in the development, as was PJ and another woman named Amanda Watkins from Araca Group.
Seattle Rep: Can you elaborate on how the play developed at ATC?
BD: We had a wild preview process in which PJ, Kimberly, Amanda, and Ayad watched the audience experience the play every night and then gave us new script pages the next day. Then we had an opening night of great reviews and great acclaim, but the artistic team said, “We’re not done yet.” So we did this rare thing of going back into rehearsal after opening night for another two weeks, and we got new pages, new pages, new pages. And we did this thing where we rehearsed the next day’s version of the show during the day, and then did the previous day’s show at night. A lot of the script developed during this time – like none of the FBI stuff was in there for my character, Emily’s character has really grown since then, and the ending of the play had changed so many times throughout that production. There was a time when Amir destroyed the painting. There was one point where Abe and Amir looked at the painting together at the final moment: two generations viewing the painting. There were lots of these different endings. And then when the play moved onto Lincoln Center with a different cast, they worked on the play a little bit. Then the play went to London at the Bush theatre, encountered more changes, and the next stop was Broadway, where the play began to finalize.
Seattle Rep: What drew you to the play?
BD: Reading the first page of the play with Amir before any lines are spoken, just the stage direction of “wealthy man, successful man, good looking man, good looking wife, beautiful home, and brown” was huge to me. Because usually brown men are barefoot, poor, sand. All that stuff. So this was huge to me to have a wealthy brown man. So I loved it.
What’s your relationship with Ayad?
Ayad is someone I admire; I think he is really brave. He is one of the bravest artists we have. It takes a certain bravery to call out your own. Most people want to celebrate their own when they are an “other.” It’s interesting when Ayad does it they call him self loathing and want to label him.
We’ve had one-on-one chats where we have talked and he really inspires me and makes me think about myself. I had a corporate job when I was doing the first version of this play and I worked this job and was becoming business savvy and losing a little bit of the sense of true art. And he had a pretty tough conversation with me once at a bar and he told me about what he didn’t want me to lose or what it costs to go down this path of money making versus your art. And that conversation was a big reason why I ended up quitting that job and pursuing acting full time.
How have audiences varied from city to city?
My biggest concern when we started this co-production was that the last time I did this show it was in a house of 80 people. And now I’m doing it for 800 people. How does it translate? And it was then when I realized it doesn’t work as well in the small space. It’s because this play is bigger, it’s large. In a small space it’s almost a little too much. It belongs in a large theatre. In terms of different audience reactions, I have had the fortune of doing the show in liberal centers, Berkeley, Chicago, and Seattle but I am interested to see the audience response in a place like Phoenix or Sarasota, FL, two places the show is actually being produced.
We’ve noticed there are differences between the three cities we have been to. The Chicago audience is a little more diverse and laughed at more diverse references. And in Seattle I am hearing more of the “I’ve never seen anything like this!” which is great and I am so glad we are here.
If you are in Chicago in the next upcoming months, be sure to check out Behzad in The Matchmaker at Goodman Theatre. Disgraced has been extended through February 6 in the Bagley Wright Theatre. Reserve your tickets here before they’re gone.