Last week I saw the Huntington’s production of The Who and The What by Ayad Akhtar. When I got to the Calderwood, I was (unsurprisingly) one of the youngest people there. It was a typical Huntington audience- very white and very old. This didn’t phase or bother me too much until later on in the evening. The show, directed by BU grad Bevin O’Gara, is at it’s core about a family dealing (or not dealing) with the gender politics of Islam and the generational divides within a Pakistani-American family. The father of the family (played incredibly by Rom Barkhordar) discovers that one of his daughters (Aila Peck) has written a “semi-fictional” novel about the Prophet Muhammad that he considers to be totally blasphemous and reprehensible. Essentially, the daughters novel aims to dissect the original stories of the Qu’ran that have led to the mistreatment of women in the Islamic faith for hundreds of years. An epic, gut-wrenching scene ensues between all parties involved, and ultimately ends with the father disowning his daughter for two years (I know that this is a very boiled down synopsis).
I will say, though this show was not the best or the worst production I’ve seen at the Huntington, it was a bit disappointing. All-in-all, the best word I can think of to describe my experience was “palatable.” While the play centers around very thorny subjects, I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t “packing the punches” in many regards. Yes, I left the theatre knowing much more about the intricacies of the Islamic faith and the gender roles embedded within it, but that was kind of it. I think most importantly, I didn’t leave with questions, but rather very definable answers, and that sucks. Personally, I am fascinated and drawn to stories that encourage and demand me to think and react after I have left the theatre; the kind of shows that you can’t stop discussing and dissecting you’re entire journey home. But with The Who and The What, I felt that Akhtar gave me too many neat, pretty bows to feel the need to dissect anything.
While the content was challenging and provocative, the structural form of the play was not. Most of the action took place in a polished, upper-middle class family kitchen, or in a millennial, “Target-chic” looking apartment. Though the dramatic tensions within the plot took turns for the uglier at times, the resolution at the end of the play was heartwarming, expected and a bit underwhelming. Dad And Daughter Reunite In A Park After Two Years Of Not Speaking, And After A Few Minutes of Awkwardness They Make Up And It Is Revealed That The Daughter Is Four Months Pregnant With A Baby Girl, Yay! I don’t know. Maybe I’m too cynical. Like I said, there were a few moments of surprises within the story that did truly grab my attention, but otherwise it was a lackluster event. But something I clocked for myself somewhere in Act II was that maybe I was putting expectations on the show that were hindering my ability to meet it where it was asking me too.
This was the first show I’ve been able to see in the past few months since taking Contemporary Drama since my schedule has finally started to die down, and I realized I approached seeing The Who and The What like as if it was an assignment for class. Now, I recognize that on some levels this may seem necessary and a give-in (I mean, it is a contemporary play after all), but for this instance, the standards I was placing on it were unfair and hindered my ability to be a receptive audience member at times. I find the work we read in class every week so inspiring, challenging and surprising in the best ways possible that I found myself waiting for the moment when the “real” chaos would ensue. This is the first time in my life that I’ve had the opportunity to encounter plays on a weekly basis that challenge me as an actor, a student, and a person. So yes, The Who and The What may have been an “easy read”, but there was still value there. The story was one that I don’t think many Huntington audiences have encountered before, and that is a victory in and of itself.