Name to know: Ayad Akhtar

This just in: Josh Radnor (Ted Mosby of How I Met Your Mother fame) will be acting in writer Ayad Akthar’s Pulitzer-winning play, Disgraced, as it returns to Broadway in September. If you don’t know Ayad Akhtar already you should promptly crawl back under that rock you came from. Or you could just read on.   

The actor
Jerzy Grotowksi and Andre Gregory, legends of Polish and American experimental theatre, were Ayad Akhtar’s mentors in the ’90s. “Grotowski used to talk about how, as performers, we learn to live at a different pitch of intensity on stage, with a fullness of being, and that the challenge can be to bring that kind of fullness to our lives. I see the theatre as a way to learn to live more fully.”

Later, after acquiring an MA in directing from Columbia University School of the Arts, he made The War Within (2005), a film in which a Pakistan-born, Western-educated engineer, suspected of being a terrorist, becomes radicalised. Akhtar co-wrote and starred in the movie with all the “dark dread of a Darren Aronofsky film,” according to The New York Times.

The playwright
The Muslim-American experience is at the heart of Akhtar’s work. His Pulitzer Prize-winning debut play Disgraced (2012) is about a dinner party that devolves into a heated discussion, and tackles Islamophobia. “I’ve been deeply inspired by a lot of the Jewish-American writers – Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Woody Allen – who wrote about the Jewish immigrant experience in a distinctly American idiom, and that’s something that I aspire to do with Muslim-American identity as well.” His current play, The Who & the What, centres around Zarina, an author whose provocative book about the Prophet threatens to fracture her conservative family in Atlanta. “I’d always wanted to write a story about relationships and matrimonial mores in the Muslim-American community,” he says. “Zarina, the narrator, is a kind of Alvy Singer for me; quirky, whip-smart, with a divided heart.”

The author
In 2012, Akhtar made his fiction debut with American Dervish, a coming-of-age story about Hayat Shah, a young Pakistani-American, set in 1980s America. Born to secular Muslim parents, Hayat falls in love with Mina, his mother’s friend who feeds his curiosity about faith – and it fast becomes an obsession. Akhtar’s next is part of an emerging pattern: “American Dervish was set 20 years before 9/11, the new book is set 10 years after. I am hoping it will be an expansive exploration of the truculent politics of Muslim identity in America, but also of how American life itself has changed.”

The Who & the What opened at Lincoln Center Theater, New York, on May 31

Photograph: Nina Subin

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