On the third day of rehearsal for the Goodman Theatre’s new production of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, the director Kimberly Senior took her cast and stage managing crew on a field trip to the Art Institute.
“I’m a camp counselor posing as a director,” Senior cracks.
The tradition started accidentally during one of the New York productions when Senior took her cast to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja, a 1648 oil painting of the artist’s Moorish slave and studio assistant. It appears in the play as the model for a portrait one of the characters, a white American artist named Emily, makes of her South Asian husband Amir, and it sets off a series of discussions about racism and cultural appropriation. Senior found that the museum visit was an excellent way of bringing the cast and crew together. “We’re not talking about us,” she says. “We’re talking about this. We can say, ‘Remember when we were in the museum?’ It’s a reference point for us. We were also learning how the art got made.”
Juan de Pareja is still at the Met, but there’s plenty of work at the Art Institute that applies to the artwork and larger themes in Disgraced. The Goodman group crowds into a private study room deep inside the museum where collection assistant Kate Howell has laid out a row of prints and drawings in chronological order. Dramaturg Jonathan Green has prepared some notes on Constable, Van Gogh, Bonnard, and Matisse, and the actors crowd around him—and Senior crouches at his feet—while he lectures about the development of plein air landscapes and how European artists began borrowing patterns and motifs from Islamic art.
“The landscapes are very fertile,” says Bernard White, who plays Amir, as he examines a drawing by Constable. It’s a line from the play, and everyone snickers.
“But why?” asks J. Anthony Crane, who plays Isaac, a curator who wants to show Emily’s work.
“He had sex there,” jokes White.
Green directs everyone’s attention to a Matisse drawing from the 1920s, the period when the artist was most influenced by Islamic art. In the play, Emily also incorporates Islamic influences into her painting, a decision Amir, a lapsed Muslim, doesn’t understand.
Later, the group visits the Art Institute’s gallery of Islamic art.
“In the museum, there’s this idea of continuity,” says Senior. “You can look at Bonnard and Islamic tiling.”
The Islamic tradition prohibits the use of the human form, so artists relied heavily on patterns of flowers and vines and straight lines. Green points out some of the design elements, like eight- and ten- and 12-pointed stars, and the use of negative space.
“There’s some meditation in looking at it,” Senior muses, examining a carved window grille.
“It’s so cohesive!” says Nisi Sturgis, who plays Emily.
“We came up with all sorts of different titles for Emily’s show,” says Senior. “We wanted to unpack the offensiveness of taking art out of context. It’s like an animal in a habitat. There’s meaning in context.”
“It’s like colonization,” says Crane. “Like with the Elgin Marbles. Like, ‘We’ll take care of it better.'”
“That’s a thing in the play,” says Senior. “With appropriating other cultures, saying, ‘Can I handle it better?'”
One of the purposes of the trip to the museum is to think about the difference between cultural appropriation and the incorporation of other cultures into art.
“There’s imitation,” says Senior, “and that leads to integration, and then to the nirvana or holy grail: innovation. Where Pier 1 just stops is integration. Artists take it a step further.”
Both Emily the character and Sturgis the actress feel guilty about Emily’s appropriation of Islamic elements into her art. Senior says every actress who has played Emily has felt this way; dealing with those feelings becomes an important part in learning how to inhabit and play the character.
“We can only be from where we’re from,” says Senior. “It doesn’t mean your opinion is less valid, or that you can’t have empathy for another point of view. But there’s a lot of guilt. You have to remember people’s intentions and the place where they came from.
“[Disgraced] is a remarkable play,” she continues. “It’s full of new ideas and thoughts. I only hope they’re as exciting for the audience. You might not agree with it, but it can advance the conversation. It raises great questions about authenticity. You have to embrace complexity. You want to crack the idea of the monolith, of ‘not all . . .’ Especially in art.”