Playwright Ayad Akhtar In Search Of The Modern Muslim | KUOW News and Information

Playwright Ayad Akhtar In Search Of The Modern Muslim

Jan 6, 2016

Ayad Akhtar is one of those guys you'd hate if he wasn't so likeable.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright is an award-winning screenwriter, a critically-acclaimed novelist, an actor and a teacher. And he's only 43 years old.

His Pulitzer-winning play, "Disgraced," is about a Pakistani-American who tries to distance himself from his roots. His deception falls apart when he and his wife host a dinner party. The play debuts in the Northwest this week at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Identity is a major theme for Akhtar. He also explored the subject in his first published novel, "Dervish." It's about a Pakistani-American boy in Milwaukee (where Akhtar grew up with his Pakistani immigrant parents) who is forced to question his Muslim identity when a family friend from Pakistan shows up for a visit.

The question of what it means to be a Muslim in a 21st century world is a subject Ayad Akhtar thinks about a lot.  "My mom was chastising me on the phone recently. 'You gotta stop it with this Muslim thing, Ayad!'"

But Akhtar says he doesn't consciously choose his subjects; they choose him.  "Your subject matter finds you," he believes. "And so, one idea leads to the next and the next and the next. Suddenly, you've got a lot of work to do."

Akhtar has always wanted to be a writer, but the path to his profession wasn't smooth. He enrolled at the University of Rochester as a freshman, where a writing professor was quite taken with the first story Akhtar wrote for class. The professor urged him to send it in for publication in The New Yorker magazine. Akhtar remembers "being over the moon." But the young student not only didn't follow his professor's advice, he quit writing altogether.

"I couldn't write another word." Akhtar explains. "Because I didn't know where the story had come from, and I thought if I publish something, people are going to want another one. And I don't know how to do this again."

Playwright Ayad Akhtar
Credit Courtesy ACT Theatre

Akhtar left Rochester, and eventually wound up at Brown University where he studied theater. He also spent time in a film program at Columbia University. Both of those experiences led to work in independent filmmaking. He co-wrote and acted in the Independent Spirit nominated film, "The War Within." Akhtar continues to work with acting students at workshops around the country. But he spends most of his time writing.

Akhtar's stories are fictional, but the playwright acknowledges his work can't be viewed in a vacuum; He says current events definitely influence how the audience responds to what he creates.

"I think of art as a way of engaging with reality, not separating from it."

Seattle Repertory Theatre's production of Akhtar's award-winning "Disgraced" begins January 8th and runs through the end of the month.

This segment originally aired Sept. 11, 2014.