Talking Points

The Rep brings a celebrated playwright back home to stage his visions of a “complicated world.”

Playwright Ayad Akhtar strikes a contemplative pose. Photo by Nina Subin.
Playwright Ayad Akhtar strikes a contemplative pose. Photo by Nina Subin.
Ayad Akhtar likes to explain his journey as a writer as a trip through four stages. Speaking by phone from a Wyoming artist’s retreat, he explains them: First, he thought he was writing well but was writing poorly. Then he was writing poorly but recognized that. Later, he was writing better but nobody was paying attention. Finally, he was writing well and people were paying attention.

Indeed they are. Since 2011, Akhtar has published a debut novel to glowing reviews and premiered three plays, including Disgraced, which received a Tony nomination for Best Play and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Just as he’s riding the top of the success curve, Akhtar has agreed to a relationship with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. This month’s production of The Invisible Hand (2012) is the first of a series of four Akhtar plays – one each season – that will culminate in a new play he’ll write for his hometown theater for its 2018-19 season.

Akhtar grew up in Brookfield and Elm Grove, so it was natural for Mark Clements, the Rep’s artistic director, to approach Akhtar after the playwright spoke at a national conference in 2013. “I thought I could have him sign a few copies of [his novel] to give to Rep patrons,” Clements recalls. “But when he saw I was from Milwaukee, he gave me a big hug.” That was the beginning of a friendship that led to the Rep’s commitment to Akhtar’s work.

Growing up, Akhtar saw plays at the Rep, but he didn’t catch the stage bug until college, when he majored in theater at Brown University. Instead, he spent much of his time at Brookfield Central High School with English teacher Diane Doerfler, reading European writers like Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka, his early influences.

“I had this unconscious idea that being the best writer I could be involved writing like the European modernists,” Akhtar says.

But he realized he had to move past that phase. This acknowledgment led to a flurry of celebrated works that revolve around the Muslim experience in America. The son of first-generation Pakistani immigrants, Akhtar identifies as a “cultural Muslim,” and he credits his recent success to an “awakening” of sorts, a turn toward “creative engagement” with the world. “As I’ve gotten older,” he says, “people living and struggling in the world have become much more interesting to me than myself. What’s happened to the community that I come from, and the struggles that have emerged, those are all part of what I’m doing.”

In The Invisible Hand, an American financial wizard is taken hostage by Pakistani extremists, and the American tries to raise his ransom by exploiting financial markets. Like all of Akhtar’s plays, it is far from a simple us-versus-them conflict. “Sometimes,” he explains, “folks will encounter one of my works, and they’ll say, ‘OK, this is what this guy thinks.’ But every work contradicts the next. You have all of these varying points of view.” Which is a reflection of our very complicated world.

And, as Akhtar is fond of saying, “I’m in dialogue with the world.”

‘Talking Points’ appears in the February 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.