The Who and The What
“Who am I?” we all may ask ourselves. Although we each have our own self-developed personality, the path of our destinies always begins with certain traits that we can’t control. In the case of Zarina, the central figure in The Who and The What, she is a woman, a Pakistani-American of immigrant parents, and the daughter of her father. Other non-innate elements become part of our personal social culture before we have control over them. Zarina is Muslim.
Ayad Akhtar’s The Who and The What adeptly addresses Muslim cultural identity and mores as part of the American experience in a trim four-character drama. Marin Theatre presents a finely acted and directed production.
Zarina is the daughter of widower Afzal, who rose to own a major taxicab company in Atlanta. Though devout and conservative, he is a gregarious and loving father who has accommodated Zarina’s artsy direction in education. However, he holds to the old country tradition of arranged marriages and, against her wishes, introduces Zarina to Eli, a white American convert to Islam.
A pivotal moment occurs when Eli reveals to Zarina that he was swayed to convert when visiting a mosque where worshipers of all ethnicities and economic levels pray in unity and that all are equal. Zarina’s riposte is that he didn’t grow up as a woman in the religion. Despite their fractiousness, and perhaps as she doesn’t expect to see him again, Eli is the first to hear of Zarina’s effort to write a novel “Women in Islam.” In it, she represents Mohammed in a humanized manner that many Muslims would consider sacrilegious.
The playwright draws full-fleshed characters. Although each falls within a certain socio-religious type, each one reveals internal conflicts and traits that are unexpected, yielding a stronger sense of a fully developed human being. In Zarina, Akhtar pens an autobiographical proxy, caught between religious beliefs that her parents follow and the pull of practices of the country she grew up in. As for Eli, he is unlike religious converts who become the most fervent practitioners. He is devout but doesn’t fell a need to go overboard to prove that he belongs.
Akhtar lacerates received wisdom in religion and particularly the notion that holy scriptures are not subject to interpretation. The illustration that he uses is delivered by Zarina who cites the scripture that is the basis for Muslim women wearing a veil – the hajib. The story in question involves the need for a man and a woman to be separated by a curtain – the word in Arabic is also hajib. Many conservative Islamic clergy have chosen to adopt a self-serving, figurative representation of the story, which mandates women’s wearing the veil, and they refuse to accept that the curtain story can be understood any other way. Yet, interpretability of the written word cannot be denied. In the simple sentence “Sally sells seashells to children on weekends,” only by placing verbal emphasis on any one of the five significant words yields a different implication for each variation.
At a broader level, the playwright questions beliefs as a system. Regrettably, many individuals accept belief above empirical fact, and this condition has spread more in the United States. Often, beliefs act as binders to the clan, and rejection of them can result in harm not only to the “perpetrator,” but also to the family and associates. In this country, denigration of the flag or of Jesus Christ may be resented or vilified by some, but we ultimately hold that freedom of speech is more important, and that revered objects and people can withstand abuse. The concern of blasphemy runs deeply in Islam to the extent that the open minded are victimized, sometimes even to death, through legal or illegal means.
The Who and The What possesses a gripping story line that constantly holds the attention. The characters engage, and we care for them. And the acting ensemble is very strong. As Zarina, Denmo Ibrahim embodies the modern Muslim woman, confident of the importance of her quest and that she is on the right side of history. Alfredo Huereca’s charisma as Afzal is palpable. He persuades when charming or in rage, and he elicits empathy even if you disagree with his decisions. Patrick Alparone appropriately soft pedals the respectful Eli but turns up the heat when the situation demands it. Finally, Annelyse Ahmad conveys the low-key, lighthearted side of Mahwish, Zarina’s younger sister, but becomes highly animated when confronting conflicts.
In writing this daring play, Ayad Akhtar exhibits considerable courage by challenging set ways. The Muslim world is rife with examples of accusations of blasphemy that often incite violence and recrimination. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, published in 1988, is considered by many to denigrate and blaspheme The Prophet. As a result, he has suffered from a fatwa including clerical authorization to murder him. He lives in the shadows and has suffered several attempts on his life.
The Who and the What written by Ayad Akhtar is produced by Marin Theatre Company and plays on its stage at 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley, CA through March 24, 2019.