With the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced (a co-production with Long Wharf Theatre), Boston will finally get to see what all the buzz is about.
Actor Benim Foster reprises his performance as Isaac, a role that he originated in the 2012 world premiere of Disgraced at Chicago’s American Theater Company. He understudied the role in the Broadway production and once again played Isaac at Long Wharf this past fall.
He has been with Disgraced longer than any other actor and longer than any member of the creative team—except, of course, for Akhtar himself.
Foster talked to me about sticking with his role for so long, the thrill of being a part of the most talked-about play in America, and the perpetual importance of Disgraced.
Why do you think you’ve stayed with Disgraced for so long?
I think it’s a two-part answer. I mean, the play is really powerful, and when we were in Chicago, we knew we had something. We knew Ayad wrote something amazing. This is a juicy character. As an actor, it’s so full and so much fun and so challenging. It’s a great piece of theater and it’s great to sink my teeth into. Also, the discussion piece that it is and what we go through with the audience, because we’re sharing this story unapologetically. It’s powerful. Then there’s just the personal: We developed it. I have this personal feeling towards it. I feel like Isaac, not that he’s my baby, but that I’m part of this.
I imagine that it’s every actor’s dream to be able to originate a role in a show like this. To be able to say in 50 years, “Hey, I created that role in this important play.” It must be unreal.
You know, I never even thought about it like that. I guess I’ve always taken pride in being part of the development and helping create what’s on the paper. Ayad wrote it, we just worked on it to develop it. Even in the Broadway production there were still ongoing line changes and conversations about how to tell the story better, and that’s a testament to Ayad. He knows what lines need to be in there and how they need to be said, but he’s so open to suggestions. He understands and, I think, invites the collaborative process that theater is.
There are points in the play where there are some pretty audible reactions from the audience.
It must be very fulfilling to feel that you’re taking an audience through this story every night and that you can hear that they’re with you. Do you find that?
I love that. Yes. I was just thinking about this. If there’s a three-character play, the fourth character is the audience. There are also these moments when the audience is peeing in their pants, it’s very funny. We take them through every gamut of emotion and we tell our story. There are a lot of laughs, but my favorite is the silence. When there’s something happening and the tension is so high that you can just hear a pin drop. It’s amazing. You feel that with them, you feel what they’re going through and this play unapologetically says, “Boom. In your face, here you go. What are you going to do with that?” It’s electrifying. Yes. It’s what makes each night alive.
Is it hard to take a role that you’ve played before with a different director? How do you differentiate? Do you start from scratch? How does that work?
That’s a great question. On Broadway, as the understudy, it was great to be able to sit in the back of the house and watch the play. I’ve always seen the play through Isaac’s eyes, and so my opinion of what people say, what people do, what happens in the play, is through Isaac and his opinion and feeling of things. And then I got to watch the play eight shows a week and go, “Wow, Amir really has a point there,” or “Wow, everyone has these opinions and no one is wrong!” I’ve never done this before. I’ve never come back to a part. I challenged myself this time, I said, “I’m going to start from scratch.” I started the process like it was the first time I was playing the role. Certain moments are new, certain lines I have different feelings about.
Is it possible that Disgraced is even timelier now than it was when it premiered in 2012?
Well, yes. My answer is yes. However, I think that unfortunately, since 9/11, every year there’s something that happens that keeps the play important. It’s topical. It’s what’s going on. Unfortunately. I think about how important the play is going to be maybe in four years and five years. Gordon keeps talking about how this play, the way that it’s written, can be about anyone, any race or ethnicity, at any time in history. And it’s happened with every ethnicity through history. This seems to be the most important one happening right now. It really strikes a chord.
In an interview with the Boston Globe, Ayad said that that there are many different ways to look at the play, all of which don’t make sense together; audiences aren’t able to view the play consistently in any one way. What do you take away from the play?
Wow. I did an online interview a couple of days ago and one of things I found myself saying was that the play isn’t so much a teaching tool but it’s most importantly a conversation starter. This is a conversation starter of utmost importance. Amir’s denying his heritage, pushing it to the side and trying to assimilate with the world. He’s trying to belong, to become whatever society thinks he should become. It brings up our feelings about our heritage and how we feel about others and our judgements and our biases. Is it nature or nurture? Is it a deep-seated tribal instinct that we have, or is it something our parents taught us, passed down from generation to generation? There’s that topic on the table. And then there’s so much that goes on that’s about relationships and the effect it has and the choices people make. What’s true, what’s lies. Then there’s that people that walk out saying, “Wow, do I feel that about people from the Middle East? Is that how I feel?” They blew up our buildings that killed 5,000 people and I have feelings about that, and I have feelings about the person I’m sitting next to on the bus. How would I feel if Israel did something horrible? Hell, even the United States. Do you always back the United States? The thing that Ayad’s done that’s brilliant is that it’s not about those topics: It’s a relationship play. And that’s what really, I think, hits home with everyone.
DISGRACED. RUNS THROUGH 2.7 AT THE HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY, 264 HUNTINGTON AVE., BOSTON. HUNTINGTONTHEATRE.ORG