Ayad Akhtar 'shocked' by Pulitzer Prize

AP, Tuesday 16 Apr 2013

Pakistani-American Ayad Akhtar wins this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play entitled 'Disgraced'

Ayad Akhtar
Ayad Akhtar (Photo: Ayad Akhtar Facebook page)

Ayad Akhtar's "Disgraced," a play about a successful Pakistani-American lawyer whose dinner party spins out of control amid a heated discussion of identity and religion, has won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

"It's such a huge honor. I'm still in shock, actually," the playwright said from London, where he's helping ready a new production of "Disgraced" at the Bush Theatre. "I feel very fortunate and very grateful."

"Disgraced" had its world premiere at Chicago's American Theater Company in 2012 and then ran at Lincoln Center Theater's Claire Tow Theater. The lead character, Amir Kapoor, a Pakistani-American corporate lawyer, lives on the Upper East Side in an apartment described in the script as "spare and tasteful with subtle flourishes of the Orient." Amir loves the New York Knicks and the Magnolia Bakery and his elegant $600 shirts with their "ridiculous thread count."

The dinner party at the heart of the play brings together two couples and several religious and ethnic identities over pork tenderloin and chorizo. When chitchat touches on Islamic and Judaic tradition, the Quran and the Talmud, racial profiling and Sept. 11 and the Taliban and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Benjamin Netanyahu — along with the requisite alcohol intake — chaos is achieved.

"I really wanted to write a play that was going to have a legitimately tragic dimension for a contemporary audience," Akhtar said. "I wanted the play to have immediacy and a liveness of engagement that harkened back to a tragic form but a mass form, something that would have audiences gasping."

The Columbia University's prize board on Monday said the 42-year-old playwright's work beat out finalists "Rapture, Blister, Burn" by Gina Gionfriddo and "4000 Miles" by Amy Herzog.

Akhtar, a 42-year-old New Yorker, also wrote the novel "American Dervish" and co-wrote and played the lead in the film "The War Within." His "Disgraced" got a celebrity gloss in New York when the lead character was played by Aasif Mandvi, the very funny correspondent on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show."

The drama award, which includes a $10,000 prize, is "for a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life," according to the official guidelines. The production must have opened during 2012 to be eligible for this year's award.

Last year's winner was Quiara Alegria Hudes's play "Water by the Spoonful," about an Iraq war veteran struggling to find his place in the world. Previous playwrights honored include August Wilson, Edward Albee, Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

Akhtar, the child of Pakistani immigrants, grew up in Wisconsin, and studied at Brown University and at Columbia University's film school. In addition to "Disgraced," he wrote the hostage thriller "The Invisible Hand," which had its world premiere at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis last year.

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