Theatre Reviews

The Who and the What

The Who and the What

By Ayad Akhtar

Directed by Ron OJ Parson

Produced by Victory Gardens Theater

What’s a Moderate?

After Ayad Akhtar’s first play, Disgraced, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013, he must have been feeling the pressure to create an equal work. However, he says in an interview in the Playbill program note, his new play, The Who and the What, joins Disgraced as part of a larger cycle. Since Disgraced will be produced at the Goodman in a few months, Chicago audiences will get the chance to see both works, which complement each other nicely. But on its own, The Who and the What comes across as too light and soft to confront the issues it raises.

Zarina (Susaan Jamshidi) and Mahwish (Minita Gandhi) are the Atlanta-born daughters of Afzal (Rom Barkhordar), a Pakistani immigrant who owns a taxi company. While Mahwish is bubbly and a little ditzy, Zarina has spent the last year hanging out in a library, working, she claims, on a book about gender politics. But according to Mahwish’s source, Zarina really just stares out the window, as if she has writer’s block, or is unwilling to say what she’s really thinking. There’s a bit of tension between the two of them; Mahwish wants to marry her childhood sweetheart, but it would be unseemly for the younger sister to get married first, and Zarina broke up with her Catholic boyfriend at their father’s behest. Now, she’s lonely, but not meeting anyone new.

Rom Barkhourdar and Minita Gandhia. All photos by Michael Courier.
Rom Barkhourdar and Minita Gandhia. All photos by Michael Courier.

Unbeknownst to her, Afzal created a profile for her on a Muslim dating website, and has been screening prospective matches. He finds a satisfactory one in Eli (Shane Kenyon), a convert from Detroit who is the imam at a socially-conscious mosque in a part of town where Afzal no longer has to go. Despite the awkwardness of being deceived in this way, once Eli and Zarina meet each other, they are glad to find an intellectual equal. Zarina even gains the courage and clarity to finish her book, but the subject matter proves disruptive to her family and their place in the Pakistani community. It is historical fiction, written from the point of view of Muhammad, and set on the day of his wedding to Zaynab, his adopted son’s ex-wife. Zarina is of the opinion that Muhammad deluded himself into thinking he had received divine approval for the marriage because he was infatuated with Zaynab, and her writing is explicitly erotic on this point. According to Zarina, a remark Muhammad made in frustration following the wedding to a clingy disciple later became the basis of Muslim women covering themselves, which Zarina and Mahwish do not do, and Zarina sees as emblematic of her co-religionists failure to scrutinize their beliefs.

Rom Barkhordar
Rom Barkhordar

Akhtar created Afzal as a character who is, by Pakistani standards, quite liberal. It annoys him that Zarina and Eli once attended a lecture by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but he doesn’t regret having funded Zarina’s way through getting an MFA in writing at Harvard. Actually, he’s grateful to her for teaching him that there’s more to an education than becoming a doctor or lawyer to make lots of money. But though he differentiates himself from the reactionary Pashtuns of Pakistan’s frontier, he thinks Eli’s diffidence to her indicates a failure to provide Zarina with what she needs: a strong man. In fairness, a large part of Zarina’s motivation is her own confusion at why she broke up with the man she loved to please her father, in spite of her proclaimed feminist ideals. Barkhordar and Jamshisi’s performances are both streaked with ambivalence. We are aware of how sensitive Afzal and Zarina are to each other, and how agonizing it is for them to realize their basic philosophies are not in alignment.

Susaan Jamshidi and Shane Kenyon
Susaan Jamshidi and Shane Kenyon

However, for the whole first act of the play, Afzal is played more like a bumbling sitcom dad than the tragic patriarch of a family drama. Part of this could be the opening night audience’s incessant giggling, which destroyed director Ron OJ Parson’s pacing and probably influenced Barkhordar’s performance. Part of it is Akhtar’s deliberate emphasis on how absurd Afzal’s actions are, by western standards, by making the target of his online deception a westerner, who is confounded, but in no way threatened. Whatever the reason, I didn’t have enough of a grasp on who Afzal is to determine whether his semi-reconciliation with Zarina after years of shunning her and pretending she was dead was authentic to his idiosyncratic character, or wishful thinking by an author who had previously been quite frank (all the characters still report being abused by other, unseen Muslims between scenes after Zarina’s book comes out, and more attention to Afzal’s response to being ostracized even after disowning Zarina would shed more light on his behavior in the final scene). I’d like to say a more sober audience will alleviate the major problems I have with this production, but I don’t know that.

Shane Kenyon also gives an incredibly realistic and charming performance as Eli, the anomalous member of the Muslim community. He’s uncomfortable with the Pakistanis’ racism and the conservatism of mainstream American Islamic organizations, but also tells Zarina plainly that he agrees with Mahwish that they have a deep psychological need to regard Muhammad as superhuman, and Eli didn’t even grow up admiring him. To suggest that Muhammad subconsciously fabricated revelations isn’t just a new interpretation or a modernization, it strikes at the very core of the religion. Every immigrant group to come to the United States has gone through a process of liberal natural-born citizens rejecting their immigrant parents’ conservatism, but recent immigrants have to make a much larger adjustment in a much shorter time than the ones who came over a hundred years ago. Akhtar seems to be interested in whether “moderate Muslim” refers to Pakistani or American standards of moderation. It’s an interesting discussion, and, when viewed in conjunction with Disgraced and Akhtar’s other projects, Akhtar provides a nuanced viewpoint. On its own, however, The Who and the What needs to be presented more seriously than this production for non-Muslims to grasp the importance of its themes.

Somewhat Recommended

Jacob Davis
[email protected]

Reviewed June 19, 2015

This show has been Jeff recommended.

For more information, see The Who and the What’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $15-60; to order, call 773-871-3000 or visit Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30 pm (except June 23 and 30), Wednesdays at 7:30 (and at 2:00 pm on July 1), Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4:00 pm (June 27 and July 11 only) and 7:30 pm (except July 4), and Sundays at 3:00 pm. Running time is one hour and forty-five minutes, with one intermission.