Backstage on Broadway: Disgraced’s Karen Pittman talks race, identity and the power of theater

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Religion, race and the search for self.

“The journey of identity, the desire to succeed.”

It's the premise of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Disgraced.

“[It's] seen through the filter of Muslim-Americans," Karen Pittman said. "But it’s a tale of many of us as Americans who’ve come to this country in search of the American Dream.”

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A tale one of the show's leading ladies can relate to.

“It’s quite a unique experience being an African-American actress, it’s a very small club," she said.

Karen Pittman takes on the role of Jory, a smart and sexy attorney.

"Jory is reflection of a 21st century, African-American Woman,” Pittman explained. “She is a full person, she has a full story. But [I] also can use my own identity and experience.”

Experience that goes back to growing up in Mississippi.

The state that just officially ratified the 13th amendment abolishing slavery only two years ago.

“The real work as a Broadway actor is staying focused on what you’re trying to create, the story you’re trying to tell," Pittman said. "[Also] how to infuse the audience with an enthusiasm to go back out and be shifted, to tell that story to others.”

And this story is one Pittman believe is not only relevant but important.

It digs deep into the conflict between modern culture and Islamic faith.

The rise of ISIS and the growing number of radical Muslims joining the fight brings an eerie edge to this drama.

"Ayad [Akhtar] says it so eloquently so beautiful, there’s incredible music and lyricism in it," Pittman explained. "It’s also very specific to Muslim Americans and I think it’s a community we look at very harshly because of what’s happening in the world right now. I think it’s the right story for now because I think we need to be opened up by his perspective.”

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Pittman also hopes to open up the conversation about her own community.

“About what it means to be a woman, about what it means to be a mother, what it means to be a sister and in those relationships how to support each other,” she said.

But to move forward, she refers back to the women who came before her.

"Diahann Carroll, Lena Horne, Diana Sands and Viola Davis," Pittman said. “I am encouraged by stories of other African American women who go through difficult times and muster the courage and strength to stay focused.”

Lessons this actress hopes to share with her own family.

“I love my life, I love my children, I have beautiful human beings to raise," Pittman grinned. "I would like to say it’s so hard to be a mom and get those cool points but I happen to love it, I enjoy it, it’s a challenge, I love a challenge!”

Pittman is also keeping busy off stage.

She will have a recurring role in the FX drama, The Americans, which made its season premiere last week.

"I get the great joy of working with Keri Russell on a character named Lisa, who befriends Keri’s character over time," she said.

If you want to check her out on the Broadway stage, do it soon. Disgraced is set to close March 1.

 

PRODUCED BY: KIM PESTALOZZI