Junk is primarily a full, rich, swift-paced story of finance in the 1980s, painting a picture of the decade when Wall Street began heavily to market “high-yield” bonds. Given the nature of those products, I couldn’t help asking Ayad Akhtar, the play’s author, whether an alternative title for his new play could be “Debt.”
“It’s possible,” he replied, but ‘Junk’ was more appealing. What’s being sold in the play is, quite literally, junk. And there are the slang connotations of the word. One of them is anatomical, and, symbolically speaking, there is something phallic about the power and money that are being pursued and worshipped by the characters.” We didn’t go into some of the word’s drug connotations. But it’s clear that Akhtar sees the financial products arising in the Reagan years as something the world got hooked on in a consuming way – and remains addicted to. “Money is the big story today,” he explained, “and identity politics is the distraction.”
Such a statement might seem surprising from the author of Disgraced, the Akhtar play that opened at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater, on October 22, 2012, and, the following spring, won the Pulitzer Prize. In that drama, an ex-Muslim, an African-American, a Jew, and a WASP discuss, sometimes fiercely, Islamic and Judaic tradition, racial profiling, and the Taliban. But, like most artists of wide curiosity, Akhtar doesn’t want to be reduced to sociological labels.
What’s more, his interest in finance is long-standing. “I often tell the story,” he said, “of what happened when I moved to New York. (He grew up in suburban Milwaukee, the son of two doctors, and went to Brown before moving to Gotham for a graduate degree in film at Columbia.) “My father said he would help support me if I read The Wall Street Journal every day.” The son complied, and used his knowledge to trade stocks and to form friendships with money professionals.
Even though Junk has already had an acclaimed production at the La Jolla Playhouse, in California, and information about the drama is available online, Ahktar is rightly circumspect about discussing the work in detail. The LCT production is altered from its West Coast incarnation. “I watch rehearsals and make changes all the time,” he said. Akhtar has recently been working on TV projects, including a series for FX set in Hollywood in 1981. He doesn’t see his current fascination with the 1980s as only about parallels between the rise of high-yield instruments under Reagan and the age of Trump. “A lot of us who are writing about this period now grew up in that decade. Its imprint naturally is showing up in our work.”
So as not to give the game away, Akhtar and I spent the second half of our interview discussing not the specifics of his new play but its broader themes. And he brought up Aristotelian unities as they apply to his earlier plays: Disgraced, The Invisible Hand, and The Who and the What, which was done at LCT3 in 2014.
Much of this discussion, alas, was erased from the file on my recording device. Apple this week is debuting its new iPhone, but mine, apparently, is aging. Like much else in our consumer age, it is – or is becoming – junk.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.