September 8, 2017

Playwright Ayad Akhtar: Conversations from the Sun Valley Writers' Conference

Host Marcia Franklin talks with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar about his trajectory from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Broadway. The two also discuss the often controversial themes of his works.

The conversation was taped at the 2017 Sun Valley Writers' Conference and is part of Dialogue's ongoing series from the renowned event.

Akhtar won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for his play "Disgraced," which depicts a casual dinner party that goes awry after banter between friends becomes heated. The play not only takes on hot-button issues surrounding 9/11 and Islam, but also reveals what Akhtar called the "secret tribal identities" of all humans. The play also won an Obie Award and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play.

A secular Muslim whose parents are from Pakistan, Akhtar talks with Franklin about how he was more religious until his life was transformed by a high-school English teacher who introduced him to certain works of literature.

"It made me understand there were vistas of reflection and experience in human life that had to do with the life of the mind," says Akhtar. "I could see that asking questions could be thrilling and was the only thing I wanted to do from that point forward."

A similar transition is depicted in Akhtar's semi-autobiographical novel American Dervish.

Akhtar doesn't shy away from challenging some of the precepts of Islam in his other plays, which include "The Who and the What" and "The Invisible Hand," as well as the movie he co-wrote and starred in, "The War Within." Akhtar talks with Franklin about his philosophy of writing and how he responds to negative reactions from some in the Muslim community.

His latest play, which opens on Broadway in October 2017, is "Junk." With 30 characters and 68 scenes, it takes aim at capitalism, debt financing and "the philosophical transformation of moving from a world where we make things to a world where money makes money," says Akhtar.

When Franklin asks the prolific author what drives him, Akhtar responds, "It's outrage. And I think that outrage is human. And I think it's the job of the artist to give it form, give it shape, give it voice."

The interview can be streamed after it airs at video.idahoptv.org. Previous episodes of Dialogue from the Sun Valley Writers' Conference can be streamed at idahoptv.org/dialogue/sunvalleywriters.