Ayad Akhtar Once More Explores Family, Identity and Religion in “The Who and The What”

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By Karen Isaacs

TheaterWorks opening production of their 2020-21 season, The Who and the What is a play that engrosses you and stimulates you to think about issues that are relevant today. It was filmed on the TheaterWorks stage making it seem almost like you were in the audience.

Ayad Akhtar, wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning play Disgraced which dealt with a successful Muslim lawyer who is forced to confront not only the prejudices of others, but his own conflicted feelings and denial of his background.

Once again Akhtar explores the Muslim experience in 21st century America. Don’t think this is play is just about Muslims. Any recent immigrant family — now or in the last century who comes to America, faces the same issues. It is a heightened form of the older generation vs. the younger one and its different attitudes. It is holding onto the original culture or questioning it and challenging it. It is about assimilation.

Yet it is also much more than that, and except for a one or two “convenient” coincidences to set up a part of the plot, it is a fascinating work.

To deal with several important issues and not to slight any of them, is something that many playwrights have difficulty doing successfully. Akhtar manages this masterfully. It is a family drama, a religious exploration, a romance and a story of gender politics.

He does slight any of them all.

Zarina (played beautifully by Jessica Jain), the central character, is the older daughter in a Pakistani-American family. Her father, Afzal retains close ties to his and his late wife’s families in Pakistan. While Zarena has assumed her mother’s role of caring for the family, she has also struck out on her own. She is a writer, a feminist and a graduate of Harvard. She is struggling to complete a novel about Islam and women.

Her father wants her to find a suitable husband and he and her younger sister help it along by placing listings on dating sites for Muslim men and women. He sets her up with Eli, a native born American who has converted to Islam and runs a mosque.

Though annoyed with her father, a relationship is sparked between the two; Zarina enjoys the conversation and debate with Eli (a fine Stephen Elrod) and it seems as though her writer’s block dissolves. A year passes and the two are wed, much to her father’s delight.

The one failing of the play is Akhtar’s reliance on an old-fashioned contrivance to bring the plot to a boil. Zarina has finished the novel and it will be published, but neither her father nor her sister have read it. The contrivance? It is in Eli’s briefcase when he visits Afzal; it partly falls out and when Eli is out of the room, Afzal takes it.

As he begins to read it, he is shocked. To him it is heresy. It is questioning the laws of Islam and how the role of women was defined and created. Zarina defends it as an exploration of the attempt to erase women from Islam.

The family confrontation is predictable. Afzal reverts to his ideas that women don’t know what they want. He want Eli to be the dominate force. He announces that she could be physically harmed by people upset by the book and that their families in Pakistan will disown her. When she will not back down (and Eli supports her), Afzal says “she is dead to me.”

His fears may not be far-fetched, Salmon Rushdie went into hiding over a controversial book that dealt with sensitive Islamic issues and characters.

The play ends a year later with Zarina and Eli moving away and expecting a child. Her father says “let it be a boy.” Zarina has the perfect comeback.

Director Aneesha Kudtarkar does a fine job with the cast. Jain as Zarina is the strong willed, independent woman who wants to reform not reject her culture. She conveys the struggles and doubts she has about her writing and her relationships, but she also conveys warmth.

Rajesh Bose is excellent as her father, who wants to maintain the “old” ways. Like many immigrants who arrive as adults, he has one foot in each culture. Kudtarkar has created some fine moments that contrast his and Zarina’s worlds.

Sanam Laila Hashemi as Mahwash has a less developed role. She initially seems like the one to push the boundaries but then embraces the old ways.

The Who and The What, the title refers to The Prophet, leaves you much to think about.

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