This weekend, I went to see The Huntington Theatre Company’s production of The Who and The What written by Ayad Akhtar and directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. As I entered the lobby of the Boston Center for the Arts for the millionth time during my time here at Boston University, I surprised myself by how surprised I was at the overwhelming amount of older, white, heterosexual couples attending a nice night out at the theatre. I too was there for a nice night out at the theater except of course, I got my tickets with my BU comp card, am brown, 25 years old, and my date was my girlfriend.
As we settled into our complimentary second row seat, I eagerly went straight to reading the program note. This play is the story about a conservative Pakistani family dealing with gender politics within their religion and daily life when Afzal, a successful and widowed business man, reads his older daughter Zarina’s novel depicting the life of Muhammad the Prophet as a human being with human tendencies. Afzal views this novel, which Zarina had been intentionally keeping from him for fear of it’s potentially controversial reception, as the utmost act of blasphemy and disowns her only to make up with her two years later. What I found while reading the production note, was the fact that this piece was written with the specific purpose of providing the older white audiences a way into the piece in a very delicate, non-threatening manner. The author, Lisa Timmel, used palatable and tame language when speaking about immigrant stories in the United States, mentioning Irish and Jewish immigrant stories like Mulligan Guard and Abie’s Irish Bernie first, to help put this Pakistani immigrant story into context. While I appreciated Timmel going on to say that immigrant dramas pose the question “What is America?, “ I was disappointed at how delicately written the whole thing was. But then again, I figure this language is a good way to get this older audience to have an open heart and mind to a piece that they may otherwise arrive at with preconceived notions and prejudices.
In short, this production note served as a kind of foreshadow for the play as a whole: Safe for older white audiences to swallow without getting burned, while also successfully pulling on their heart strings to then facilitate a window into educating them about an experience largely not their own.
Rob Barkholder as Afzal, spear-headed this narrative with fierce comedic timing, moment to moment generosity, and most of all a deep love for his daughters Zarina played by Alia Peck, and Mahwish played by Turna Mete. The familial chemistry took a little bit to warm up but once the energy was flowing, it was beautiful to watch. It was this familial chemistry and deep love that each member of the family had for each other that created an instant emotional empathy. This empathy created a line of openness that I believe facilitated the digestion of Ayad Akhtar’s educational rhetoric within the piece about Muslim religion and gender politics. Another effective tool used for the palatability of this rhetoric was the use of the Zarina’s white liberal Muslim convert husband Eli, played by the charismatic Joseph Marella. Akhtar paints Eli as the ideal white ally who is committed to serving his community, his faith, and not to mention that Afzal himself hand picked him for his daughter to date via an online dating site where he impersonated Zarina and took Eli out on a date before Zarina even knew he existed. In this way, Akhtar interlaces the modernities of this world with the Muslim religion and way of life in a comedic yet poignant manner that highlights where these things chafe, but also where they can be similar in a parallel like way. This was also expressed through the scenic and sound design. The set consisted of a three elegant yet aged looking walls, much like the walls of a mosque- one large one upstage running the length of the stage, and then two smaller walls on stage right and left. These walls would rise giving way to the modern day locations of the play. The side walls would lift as platforms rolled on stage for settings like the coffee shop where Azful meets Eli for their date, the Sushi restaurant where Eli and Karina go on their first date, and Karina and Eli’s apartment. The upstage wall gave way to the family’s home kitchen, where all the most important scenes of the play took place. The fact that these modern locations emerge from behind these walls suggest an inherent two-ness in the container of where the family exists. Similarly, the songs played between scenes progressed from modern American punk rock, to contemporary Muslim music, and then into more traditional Muslim melodies. Another notable sound element that contributed to the full atmospheric experience of the different locations of the piece was the ambient noises placed in each location. For example, the noise of the specific coffee shop chatter, coffee machines, and music was different than the chatter and music from the sushi restaurant. The use of light shining onto the mosque walls and bird sounds for the last scene of the play served as not only as a literal container to denote an outdoor scene but as metaphorical element to display that the story is moving toward a happy ending. Overall, the artistry and aesthetic of the piece was a beautiful blend of the contemporary moment in the United States with the Muslim culture and tradition.
Though it was very clear this piece was blatantly aware of the audience it was aimed at, I would make the argument that this piece does speak to people of color in a different manner. As a Latinx woman who was raised religiously and has gone on to pretty severely stray from the Catholic and conservative ideals in which I was boxed into for most of my life, I was following Zarina’s character the entire time. There is always something extremely powerful about seeing a woman of color taking center stage, speaking passionately about controversial subjects, blatantly educating the white man that would later become her as she sat across the table from him at that sushi restaurant, finally opening up about what her novel was about. There is something inherently powerful to have a brown female defining body with long curly hair fighting for what she believes in, and that the playwright let her educate Eli in a very straight forward manner. For all that the play was generally palatable, Eli and Zarina’s relationship is perhaps the most confrontational part of the narrative. Not only was there friction between Zarina and Eli about the content of her novel after Eli supported her writing it for the past four years, but there was the recognition and reversal on Eli’s part when he witnesses Afzul’s violent fit toward her novel. Eli fiercely defends Zarina when Afzul chastises Zarina for her blasphemy and demands she destroy it. Though this was a very satisfying cathartic release to see Eli finally viscerally understand the fact that gender oppression within the Muslim faith is still very much alive and well in this family unit, and rises up to smash it in defense of his wife, I could not help but desire that Zarina defend herself. But then again, this is when the narrative became safe again, displaying to the older white audiences the act of the white man being an excellent ally.
Akhtar wrote a play about a Paksitani immigrant family living in America dealing with the still existing female oppression and conservatism that exists within the Muslim faith, for a white audience. They had the opportunity to see what being a great ally looks like through the character of Eli, and also had the opportunity to be educated about the Muslim culture and tradition through empathizing with the universal intricacies of the family unit. I would say this play was successful in it’s pursuit and a definite piece that is slowly teaching it’s older audiences where the theater wants to go with the stories it needs to tell in this world.