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Ayad Akhtar returns to Milwaukee with the Rep's upcoming production of "The Invisible Hand." (PHOTO: Ayad Akhtar Facebook)

A conversation with Milwaukee-raised Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar

Since leaving his hometown of Brookfield after graduating from high school, Ayad Akhtar has earned a lot of titles. Ivy League grad. Actor. Screenwriter. Novelist. Playwright. Then there's arguably the most prestigious title of the bunch: winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for his stage debut "Disgraced," about a dinner party that turns sour as issues of politics, religion, racial identity and more bubble over and combust.

Safe to say he's kept busy since his Brookfield Central days.

He returns to his old stomping grounds with "The Invisible Hand," the first of four collaborations in four years between Akhtar and the Milwaukee Rep. Premiering Wednesday, Feb. 24, the playwright's "Disgraced" follow-up ignites a similarly explosive powder keg, investigating the relationships between economics and extremism, religious and political ideologies, through a story about a kidnapped American banker trying to free himself through the financial market.

Before the show hits the stage, OnMilwaukee sat down with Akhtar to talk about winning the Pulitzer, how people view Muslim characters, the state of capitalism and why social media is "the worst thing that's happened to American democracy."

OnMilwaukee: What was it like winning the Pulitzer Prize?

Ayad Akhtar: It was amazing. It was totally unexpected. I was in London – I just got into London the day before the first rehearsal for "Disgraced" at a theater in London the next day – and I got this call, and I thought it was a crank call. It was from a press agent at Lincoln Center who I know quite well and I … I don't know; it was so unexpected. But it was really, I often say, a pleasure as complete and subtle as any pleasure I've ever experienced in my life, and it lasted 36 hours. And for 36 hours, I literally thought I was dreaming. I never experienced a state like that.

What's that like, dealing with the new pressure and mentality of "You are a Pulitzer winner"?

It's part of the story now, so I have to deal with it. I don't take it that seriously, but that doesn't mean other people don't take it seriously. They're going to put that pressure on me and write in relation to that expectation – write their critiques or reviews in relation – but that doesn't change my own sense of what I'm doing.

I've been writing for 30 years, so it happened to me late enough that it's not going to really change how I think of myself as a writer. I know that thinking that I'm a good writer is always a liability. It's always been a liability. When I think I'm good, those are the times when I get blind. So there's no point. It's better to stay focused on the things I need to continue to get better at.

When did the idea strike you for "The Invisible Hand"? Was there a particular moment or inspiration?

Not exactly. I always say a good idea for a story is the meeting point of three or four ideas, so there isn't any one idea.

For many years after Christopher Hitchens wrote that article, "The Trials of Henry Kissinger," I had this idea of putting capitalism on trial. Then I read that series of articles that David Rohde wrote in The New York Times about his escape from captivity by the Taliban. One day – it was actually during the financial crisis – I was thinking about what was going on, and those two ideas about capitalism on trial and the David Rohde escape narrative kind of dovetailed with these thoughts I was having about the financial crisis and – bam – I had this idea, which was about globalism, globalization, extremist third world politics, terrorism, capitalism, the way in which the violence of global finance and the violence of so called terrorism are perhaps not all that different than we think.

Do you believe capitalism is in a good place?

Capitalism is a religious ideology we believe because it's our ideological … it's our ideological blind spot. We think that it's true; we think free market liberalism is true. We think that it makes the world a better place. It's just what we believe. There's no evidence for that. It's what we believe. In that way, it's religious ideology.

I think I've been suspect of capitalism for a long time. I'm not a bleeding heart liberal, and I'm not going to sit here and tell you that getting rid of capitalism is the solution. One thing that's often not known is that a lot of militant political movements around the world have taken their lead from Marxism and have done so for many years. At the core of a strain of Islamist militant thought is the desire for a more just economic world inspired by Marx. So the discourse you see historically with a lot of militant Islamic movements is very similar to the discourse of Occupy Wall Street and very similar to the discourse that Bernie Sanders has right now.

That's something people don't necessarily know, but that's because there's a strong strain of anti-intellectualism in this country. Issac Asimov put it very well when he said, "In America, it seems sometimes as if my ignorance is as good as your knowledge." There's this sentiment out there that I don't know sh*t, but it doesn't matter because I'm right. I don't care what you say or what the facts are, and we are suffering the consequences of that environment in our political life.

And the Internet has only exacerbated that …

Social media is probably the worst thing that's happened to American democracy.

Really?

If my ignorance is as good as your knowledge, then me posting my ignorance is an act of self-expression that deserves to sit side by side with a cogent, factual articulation of reality. That way lies madness.

Yeah, on Twitter, there's no value of argument. It's a level playing field.

There's no truth value.

A New York Times article can be next to a racist rant from somebody on the same feed.

Or outright ignorance. I think the truth value of language has ceased to exist in the public sphere. That's a crisis. That's no joking matter, because we're walking ourselves right off a cliff. These are real things. When your language has no meaning, you cannot communicate any longer.

We've got pipes in Flint that have been corroded by the process of privatization. We got problems in this country that are so severe and significant, but the conversation is about a bunch of identity politics, and the people who are trying to deal with things in a concrete way are shouted out by people who think that our biggest problem is that we've got abortion rights or gun control issues. 40 percent of America thinks Obama is a Muslim Kenyan king. This is a crisis in the national consciousness.

The counterpoint would be that, without social media, we wouldn't know as much and as quickly about Flint than we would've before.

I'm not saying that social media is not something that could be used in a productive way or that it hasn't been used in a productive way. But for the most part, it has become the scourge of our national consciousness. It's a cesspool, and it's dragging the national conversation down into the cesspool.

In a show like this, where you're dealing with these weighty ideas about global economies and ideological extremism, how do you balance explaining that to an audience while also keeping them invested emotionally?

That's the challenge. Tell a good story. If you tell a good story – that's first and foremost – and keep the audience's interest, there's room for you to say some things and explore some ideas. But you have to keep your finger on the narrative pulse. You gotta tell a good story.

Are there any books or plays or movies that you look to as that ideal of balance?

Shakespeare. Shakespeare will tell you a gazillion things about something. You can read Shakespeare and learn about all sorts of things: statecraft, merchantcraft, business theory, English history, discourses on love, philosophical disquisitions on the nature of existence. It's all there, but Shakespeare is able to make it live through story and character.

And extremely well as a populist writer, then and now.

Well, he was interested in selling tickets. So he was a commercial writer, but he was a commercial writer who also understood how to plum the depths. So, for me, he's the ideal. His plays are a little long for me, in terms of an audience's attention these days, but philosophical and formally, I think he's the ideal.

Do you feel extra pressure as a Muslim-raised writer about stereotypes of Muslims?

If there is, I don't pay attention to it. Stereotypes are in the mind of the viewer; they're not in my mind. I'm writing characters who are having experiences.

I'm not sure what the stereotype of Amir (the lead character in "Disgraced") is. He is a pork-eating, apostate Muslim who denigrates the Quran. What's the stereotype? But, because of a series of events in the play, he ends up beating the sh*t out of his wife, he becomes a stereotype to the audience. He's not a stereotype to me, and he's not a stereotype to himself. He did what he did for very clear reasons that the audience is fully aware of, but because we see art increasingly as a means of advocacy, as a public relations gesture, the truth content of art has to do with whether it changes our pre-existing idea of something. That's not art.

Shakespeare's not changing anybody's ideas of Jews in "The Merchant of Venice." He's not changing anybody's idea of a black man in "Othello." That play is about how dumb a black man can be. All the best jokes are given to Iago, who is in cohoots with the audience, and if you see a good production, the audience is laughing at Othello up until that last scene.

So this conversation around stereotypes I find again to be similarly mindless, in the sense that every single one of my characters is drawn very specifically and to the extent that they map against larger sociological and social conflicts that exist in the world today, I don't know. That's a problem? I'm not sure how I'm supposed to write about political resistance in the Muslim world without writing about people who are willing to resort to violence. And why is that a problem? What's the problem exactly? That we don't like Muslims who use violence? Is that my problem?

There's an edge to my response here only because I find it frustrating to have to respond to something that has nothing to do with my work, but is about the audience's pre-existing ideas. That's my cross to bear. It's fine; I'll bear it. But I won't play along.

It's interesting you bring up art as advocacy and advocacy criticism, because there's a tendency to give well-intentioned, "important" stories a pass.

In a market economy, where the utility of art is difficult to quantify, the natural role of the artist is to play a role of advocacy within the larger social order. It has nothing to do with the real value of art. In fact, to my mind, it's denaturing. It's a second-class advertisement that doesn't even have the capacity to fundamentally shift perception, because it's seen as a gesture within a larger rhetorical or politically discursive game. I don't know how that transcends to the level of art.

Look at Shakespeare. People remember his plays because of the stories and the characters …

And the language!

… not that they're commentaries or statements about something at that time.

They remember Shylock because of those speeches, because of the language, because of the depth of the intelligence, because of the poetic flourish and the human window that that language opens up. I think that's exactly right.

I'm not writing to correct some idea that non-Muslim whites have. I'm not trying to make Muslims more palatable. I'm not trying to defend Islam. Islam is a great tradition that has lasted 1,500 years; it does not need the meager defenses of a sometime-playwright. You know what I mean? I'm trying to fry a different kind of fish.

But because of my Muslim origins, because of the fact that my specific – my Yoknapataypha County, the county that Faulkner used to write about – is Muslim experience in America, that's my particular to which I'm writing toward the universal, toward the human experience, toward the contemporary global experience. It's just that I'm writing from this particular. But the particular gets mistaken for the content. Why? Because of this rampant environment of identity politics, which I am writing about but which I am not writing to.


Talkbacks

exchilango | Feb. 19, 2016 at 1:56 p.m. (report)

"Without social media, we wouldn't know as much and as quickly about Flint than we would've before." Excuse me? The news media was all over Flint. What in the world did social media do?

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