Pulitzer-Winning Writer Of Kansas City Rep's New Play Explains How He Predicts The Future

Oct 13, 2016

Ayad Akhtar won the Pulitzer Prize back in 2013 for his play Disgraced, about a successful corporate lawyer who has hidden his Pakistani Muslim heritage.

The Milwaukee-born Akhtar also won critical acclaim for his novel American Dervish, a coming-of-age story set in his hometown in the 1980s. With that book, Akhtar tells me, he wanted to write a book that was set two decades before 9/11.

"I wanted to write a book that, on the one hand, allowed me to tell a story of American immigrant identity, and coming of age as an American, and American faith uninflected by the politics of a post-9/11 world," Akhtar says. "And at the same time, I wanted to show that there were underlying rifts, identity questions, and larger geopolitical things that were manifest – even in domestic families – that were going to rear their heads in the world that would be bequeathed to us after 9/11."

Two years after a Kansas City Repertory Theatre run of his The Who and the What, another Akhtar play, The Invisible Hand, opens at the Rep this weekend. I recently spoke with Akhtar about his plays — and couldn't resist asking him what many writers undoubtedly wonder.

How did it feel to win the Pulitzer?

"I’ve described it as pleasure as complete and subtle as any I have ever known. It felt like some kind of instance of pure grace in my life."

What was the subtle part?

"It was like an invisible shimmering quality, and it was complete. It was just so, I felt so validated, I felt I’d worked so hard and it was so unexpected. It was like the Lord Himself had reached out of the clouds and pointed at me and said, ‘You. Today.’”

You learned you’d won the Pulitzer on the same day as the Boston Marathon bombings — how did that affect all these other feelings you’re describing?

Playwright Ayad Akhtar, left, and Kansas City Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Eric Rosen, at a rehearsal for 'The Invisible Hand.'
Credit Courtesy Kansas City Repertory Theatre

"It felt oddly appropriate, though, of course, tragic. But it’s happened with that play, Disgraced, over and over again. It opened in London on the night of the Woolwich murder where two guys beheaded a soldier in South London. The next day, all the reviews led with that fact. In San Francisco at Berkeley Rep, it opened the night of the Paris attacks at the Bataclan. Time and again, it’s been this twinning of the darker side of the world with Disgraced. I’m used to it at this point."

Since you said you felt like the Lord pointed at you on the day you won the Pulitzer, do these other coincidences with your work feel as if the Lord is working in the opposite direction?

"No. I make a distinction between what I can live and experience in what is my life and what is the life of the world.

"That larger question of what is the Lord’s part in unfortunate events is a big question. It’s an important one and one we don’t ask enough. I think that tragic sense of things has much to teach us about how to live. Of course it’s terrible, but by the same token it doesn’t ever go away, so why don’t we dispense with the fiction that it is going away? And why don’t we learn to understand how to live with, and through, and grow from it more productively? Our reaction to the events on 9/11 have destroyed the world. We have created more suffering and more hens coming home to roost to bite us, to peck at us, than we ever should have. Why? Because somehow we were not able to say, 'How can we grow from this tragedy?'"

The Invisible Hand opens at the Kansas City Rep this weekend. The Rep describes it as, "Like a game of chess, two captors and their American hostage maneuver through life in a holding cell, where the hostage tries to negotiate his way out using stock market secrets.”

"They’re working hard to make sure there’s no spoilers there. Basically, a white American investment banking advisor, somebody with a background in trading, gets kidnapped by a local militia. When he gets kidnapped, his company, Citibank, cannot negotiate ransom because it’s against U.S. anti-terrorism laws to negotiate. So the second-in-command comes up with: Why don’t we put him to work to raise his own ransom using his trading skills? So they turn the prison room into a trading room, and over the course of 19 scenes wreak some very plausible havoc on the Pakistani markets.

Akhtar at a rehearsal for the Kansas City Rep's 'The Invisible Hand.'
Credit Courtesy Kansas City Repertory Theatre

"So it’s a kind of allegory. It’s a thriller, really, and folks seem to dig it on that level. But I’m trying to create an equation, or comparison, between the violence of third-world extremist militant politics and global finance."

This play premiered in St. Louis in 2012, and it seems as if it’s only become more relevant since then. When you wrote it, were you writing in response to specific things in the news, or were you imagining possibilities that now look real to us?

"I get that question a lot, because all of my work seems to be very topical when it comes out, and as the years go on it only seems to become more relevant. People ask me, ‘How do you do that?’ I’m not planning to do it, I’m writing to the larger shifts and larger movements that are our collective life together. The incursion of finance into our lives is only increasing. The ways our lives and our consciousnesses are changing because of this shift are things that will be with us for generations."

The Invisible Hand, October 14-November 13 at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's Copaken Stage, 1 H&R Block Way, Kansas City, Missouri, 64105, 816-235-2700.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.