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Muslim identity in America being explored on stage at Road Less Traveled

For most young men growing up in Brooklyn, going out for a beer with friends is an activity as natural as breathing.

But the first beer Afrim Gjonbalaj drank in public, as an observant young Muslim testing the boundaries of his faith, caused a miniature crisis of conscience.

The 35-year-old actor, who stars in Road Less Traveled Theatre's production of Ayak Akhtar's play "Disgraced," vividly recalls the thoughts that raced through his mind when he decided to take his first sip.

"I remember looking at it and going, you know what, I'm gonna have it," said Gjonbalaj, whose parents emigrated from Albania. "It was like the record went 'errrrr…' And everyone looked at me and kind of started laughing and cracking up."

So why, after years of abstaining, did he do it?

"In Islam, almost all the chapters start with, 'the most beneficent, the most merciful,' referencing God," Gjonbalaj said. The lesson he gleaned from his reading of the Koran -- "live life, make some mistakes, come back to your ideas, investigate them" -- reflects the internal debate of his character in "Disgraced."

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Theater preview

"Disgraced" opens March 9 in Road Less Traveled Theatre, 500 Pearl St. Tickets are $5 to $35. Call 629-3069 or visit roadlesstraveledproductions.org.

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Gjonbalaj plays Amir, a lawyer from a Pakistani Muslim family, who has struggled to put many aspects of his past and his Muslim identity behind him to forge a path for himself in corporate America. Amir's nephew, Abe (Buffalo actor Mohammad Farraj) is embroiled in a personal struggle over how much of his identity to jettison in a society increasingly hostile toward Islam and ignorant of its tenets.

The other characters in the play, Amir's white wife, and two dinner guests who are African-American and Jewish, create a forum for an explosive discussion of one Muslim's experience in America. By extension, Akhtar's play, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama, comments on the universal struggle to reconcile religious and cultural heritage with the demands of a diverse, multitheistic society.

"Ideally, the audience walks away from this play not thinking about Muslims and Islam, but about their own tribal fealties," Akhtar told The New York Times in 2014.

For Gjonbalaj, who is based in New York City, the parallels between his own life and that of the characters in "Disgraced" are almost too numerous to mention.

"I have nieces and nephews that are literally in this space of discovering their identity within America, within their faith," he said. "I have some nieces who wear the headscarf, some that don't. It's their choice, and they're figuring out how they want to express themselves in this world now. And that's exactly what's happening with this character."

Gjonbalaj has also had his own personal battles with how much to express his Muslim identity, which help to inform his portrayal of Amir.

"When I'm clean-shaven and dressed nicely, no one makes a whoop," he said. "If I have my long hair and my long beard, I've been stopped by police unnecessarily. So I'm fortunate enough to be in this kind of middle place where I've seen it from both ends, and it's my job as an actor to express that."

Road Less Traveled co-founder and artistic director Scott Behrend, who saw "Disgraced" during its Broadway run in 2015, said it struck him as the ideal play for the current debate over the treatment of Muslims in the United States. It also seemed appropriate, and overdue, for a city with a substantial Muslim population that rarely if ever sees its concerns or experiences reflected on local stages.

"All great theater is subversive," Behrend said. "With the people who have been immigrating to Buffalo from different parts of the world and what those backgrounds are like, it just feels like this is a conversation that we need to have. Honestly, I felt a deep responsibility that we had to be the storytellers to tell this story."

Despite its popularity on Broadway, its Tony nomination and Pulitzer Prize and many regional productions, Akhtar's play has been a source of pointed controversy among Muslims. The source of the controversy stems in part from Amir's attempts to mask his Muslim history and faith in an effort to assimilate into American culture and climb the corporate ladder.

Despite those attempts, Amir still maintains a sense of responsibility to his faith, and the struggle over that fidelity and the pressures of American society has stirred some theatergoers to anger. That is to say nothing of the backlash the play has received from Americans who wrongly view Islam as a monolithic religion that fosters terrorism and global oppression.

"It's a Muslim playwright writing characters who are exploring these concepts openly. This is something that people usually talk about behind closed doors," Gjonbalaj said. "He's not afraid to say some things that maybe some people haven't really said openly previously."

Beyond the stage, Gjonbalaj has been spending some of his time in Buffalo helping to foster a broader understanding of his faith. He has spoken twice as part of a public education program launched by the Westminster Presbyterian Church that was launched in the wake of 9/11.

"Their impulse, which is a very beautiful impulse, was to ask questions and to bring people in to have a conversation about Islam and its views and beliefs," he said.

That conversation was likely much calmer than the one that will unfold on the Road Less Traveled Stage on March 9, when relationships and faith are tested and expectations even from audience members who consider themselves progressive are likely shattered.

"It's the most exciting and scary thing that I've ever been a part of, because I know that I just have a gut feeling that it's going to cause an uproar in some way," Gjonbalaj said. "If this play causes an uproar, then it's done its job."

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