Swirling within the emotional confines of a Pakistani family living in Atlanta are questions of faith, identity and love. They are profound, life-changing questions for father Afzal and his daughters, Mahwish and Zarina, and for Zarina’s husband, Muslim convert Eli. Not the least of these questions is informed by the words of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida: “The history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and the what.” In Pultizer Prize winner (for his first play, Disgraced) Ayad Akhtar’s The Who & The What, 32-year-old writer Zarina is fiercely dedicated to finding answers and spreading the truth – about the Prophet, about the women of Islam, about love. Her quest and the impact it has on those she cares about is an exceptionally beautiful one.
The Who & The What began in development as part of La Jolla Playhouse’s inaugural DNA New Works Series last year. Now it’s making its world premiere in the Playhouse’s Potiker Theatre under the helm of Kimberly Senior, playwright Akhtar’s director. Her cast of four is first-rate: Kai Lennox as Eli, a man of generous spirit who’s torn between his newly adopted religion and the book his wife writes that deconstructs it; Bernard White as Afzal, a man full of life and love for his daughters, but bound to deep-seated religious and cultural tenets; Meera Rohit Kumbhani as younger sister Mahwish, coping with personal conflicts of her own; and Monika Jolly as Zarina, delivering a performance that in its unflinching resolve and complex sensitivity makes The Who & The What function so well on both an emotional and cerebral level.
Senior’s direction is nimble and ideally in tune with the rhythm of playwright Akhtar’s words. The play’s individual confrontations are rife with passion but never regress into shouting matches, nor do they overwhelm the love extant between sisters, between Zarina and Eli, or Zarina and her father. These personal relationships, forged in adversity as well as happy discovery, are as vital to The Who & The What as are its universal inquiries.
May all new works nurtured in La Jolla Playhouse’s DNA series come to such satisfying fruition.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.