SINGAPORE, Dec 1 — If you thought a play examining issues of religion and race against the backdrop of an intimate dinner party at an Upper East Side apartment in post 9/11 New York would have little relevance for a Singapore audience, you are in for a surprise.
Since it opened on November 16 at KC Arts Theatre, Disgraced, the Pulitzer prize-winning play by Pakistani American playwright Ayad Akhtar, has been receiving a strong audience response, with a sold-out opening weekend and the show’s run extended till December 9.
Staged by the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), the play has also garnered positive reactions online, from millennials no less, with netizens on Instagram and Facebook describing it as “the most dramatic and provocative play I have ever watched”, and praising it for “treading on often-avoided themes around religion, race, identities and even Islamophobia”.
Gaurav Kripalani, artistic director for SRT, called Disgraced “one of the most powerful and important plays” to be staged in Singapore, said it was “gratifying” to see how much audiences have supported the decision to stage the show here.
The play also sees Kripalani making his comeback to the stage: He plays the lead character Amir, a successful lawyer with South Asian Muslim roots who worked hard to achieve the American Dream with a beautiful American wife.
With veteran actors Ghafir Akbar, Jennifer Coombs, LaNisa Frederick, Daniel Jenkins also in the cast, the play centres around a dinner party hosted by Amir that erupts into a volatile argument over race, religion and class in the modern world.
For Kripalani, who also marks his 20th anniversary at SRT, Disgraced was “the perfect play for me to get back on stage”, even if he felt the experience was “terrifying and exhilarating all at the same”.
“It is an important play for Singapore and one of the cleverest scripts I have ever come across,” he added.
“Going back to acting after so many years is one of the hardest things I have ever done, but I have loved every minute of it.”
Reflecting on his early days at the theatre company, he explained: “The key thing we were doing was shaping the cultural landscape of the country. We would take amazing risks, we would sit around, decide what the next show could be and go off and do it, and we would go find the money, go find the actor. I loved that era of doing it on the fly.”
The flipside to that, he admitted, was that, at the time, SRT was hugely in debt.
“I would go into work every morning at 10, and there would be all these memos from creditors chasing us for money. I would spend a good hour of the day calling debtors and begging them to extend credit to us for the next show.
“It was a very challenging time and there were times I was demoralised and wondered if this is what I could do.”
Then, in 2002, The Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay opened and SRT was commissioned to do the opening musical Forbidden City.
Kripalani called it “the single thing that transformed SRT’s fortunes”.
“We had been doing musicals almost every year before that, but it was usually at the Victoria Theatre which had 900 seats. (At The Esplanade), we were doing a musical in a 2000-seat theatre.
“It completely changed the bottom line for us. Now we have the resources to do shows that we could not dream of doing 20 years ago and work with the likes of Kevin Spacey and Ian McKellan,” he added.
Moving forward, his vision and objective for SRT is clear — engaging audiences in a thought-provoking manner, such as Disgraced.
“I want to do edgy and exciting plays and I always choose my plays based on the story,” he said. “I want you to walk out of a show thinking about it. I want you to go out after the play with friends and have a heated debate about what you just watched and the story behind it.”
(Disgraced has certainly done that to effect.) — TODAY
* Disgraced runs till Dec 9 at KC Arts Theatre. Tickets are available from Sistic.