Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who & the What,” at ArtsWest Playhouse, provides insight into the complex dynamics within an affectionate, partially assimilated Muslim-American family, with particular attention to the drive for intellectual and sexual autonomy by young women in that sphere.
“We are a conservative family,” Atlanta taxi company owner Afzal proudly informs a suitor of his eldest daughter.
Yes and no, in Ayad Akhtar’s intriguing “The Who & the What.” ArtsWest Playhouse is presenting the play’s Seattle premiere, in a coproduction with the local arts group Pratidhwani.
Though the widowed Afzal (robustly played by Abhijeet Rane) is a devout Muslim, this successful Pakistani immigrant has never urged his American-bred daughters Zarina (standout Monika Jolly) and Mahwish (Haley Alaji) to wear the hijab, the traditional Muslim veil for women.
‘The Who & the What’
By Ayad Akhtar. Through Oct. 1 at ArtsWest Playhouse, 4711 California Ave S.W., Seattle; $17-$38 (206-938-0339 or artswest.org)
He has also happily subsidized the Harvard education and literary aspirations of Zarina, including several years working on a novel about “gender politics” and “women in Islam.”
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Yet in other ways, Afzal’s views on parenting, religion and the role of women are not just conservative, but stubbornly patriarchal. And when he learns of the renegade depiction of the prophet Mohammed in his beloved daughter’s novel, a lacerating generational and cultural clash between independent adult child and domineering father is inevitable.
“The Who & the What” is a thoughtful and revealing debate wrapped in a rather formulaic family rom-com. It’s also something of a departure from earlier Akhtar plays we’ve seen here — hard-hitting dramas that have made him one of the most-produced contemporary dramatists in the U.S. currently.
This 2014 work doesn’t have the punch of Akbar’s intense international thriller “The Invisible Hand,” about the collusion between Mideast terrorism and Wall Street. Nor is it as controversial as his provocative Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced,” an unsparing study of a hotshot Manhattan attorney grappling with Islamophobia and misogyny.
But “The Who & the What” does provide meaningful insight into the complex dynamics within an affectionate, partially assimilated Muslim-American family, with particular attention to the continuing drive for intellectual and sexual autonomy by young women in that sphere. And Zarina’s daring book is a bombshell, in its humanized depiction of Mohammed and suggestion that the tradition of the hijab was actually inspired by a female lover of the prophet.
In Afzal’s way of thinking, this fiction is heretical and possibly dangerous, given the zealous threats like the one lobbed at Indian novelist Salman Rushdie for his allegedly blasphemous novel “The Satanic Verses.” Others close to Zarina aren’t thrilled by her tale either.
Lighter comedy mingles with weighty themes, in the script and the staging at ArtsWest by director Samip Raval. Most humorous is Afzal’s internet matchmaking for Zarina (unbeknown to her). The Muslim convert Eli (the appealing Andre Nelson) is understandably irked when a supposed first date with a woman he fancies is actually a parental interrogation.
Less laughable is the ditziness of Zarina’s kid sis Mahwish. Alaji isn’t wholly convincing in the role, but neither is the character as written — a schematic figure of an obedient Muslim daughter and wife with a sizzling streak of sexual rebellion. (Note that Mahwish’s sex life is discussed in graphic detail.)
There are also missteps with the in-the-round setup. Under Raval’s hand, the staging tends to muffle the heavily accented speech of Rane, and complicate some sightlines.
But the sympathy, wry humor and trenchant probing of Akhtar’s writing, and the quietly authentic power of Jolly’s Zarina, compensate for a few glitches, and help us accept a predictable upbeat ending.
Jolly, a seasoned film and TV actress who originated the role in Los Angeles, is a Seattle newcomer. And her sensitive, focused performance is all the more astute for its restraint and resolve. Her Zarina is an unflinching feminist. But she is not impervious to her father’s love, nor his difficulties in accepting how the world and family around him are changing.