The Who & The What: Lifting the curtain on the gender-politics at the heart of a Pakistani-American family drama


Presented by Huntington Theatre Company
By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara

March 31 – May 7 2017
South End Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
527 Tremont Street
Boston, MA
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Review by Polly Goss

(Boston, MA) The Who & The What is a heartfelt and moving portrayal of the inter-generational and cultural conflicts nestling within the heart of a Pakistani American family. The Who & The What is more than just a Muslim variation of the domestic tragicomedy, which has historically dominated depictions of the immigrant family on stage and screen. Pulitzer Prize winning author Ayad Akhtar asks some pervading questions about Islam, religious doctrine and gender politics that resonate with audiences of all different races and creeds. The play is a delight to watch, but Akhtar’s light hearted writing leaves the audiences asking some serious questions about the nature of family and faith.

Rom Barkhordar plays Afzal, the overbearing but lovable father, with superb pathos. The widowed Pakistani father Afzal struggles to keep the family together after his wife’s death. Motivated by his own positive experience of arranged marriage, he is determined to ensure that his daughters will be looked after by men of his choosing. Satisfied with his choice for his younger daughter Mahwish, the play centers around his relationship with his “headstrong” and Harvard educated elder daughter, Zerina (Alia Peck).

Initially Afzal’s overbearing nature seems fairly harmless and comedic, as we see him set up fake internet dating profiles for Zerina on “Muslimlove.com”. Zerina ends up following her father’s wishes and marries Ely (Joseph Marrella), a white Muslim convert. Akhtar avoids conforming to stereotypical images of an arranged marriage. Ely’s character reminds us of the attraction of religion for those who feel like outsiders in this world. Ely preaches a modern, American, Islam that embraces everyone regardless of race or gender. Ely’s longing to belong within the Islamic community is however denied to him throughout the play; firstly, by Afzal belittling his masculinity and then by Zerina, whose words turn his own congregation against him and render him voiceless.

Zerina’s controversial novel The Who & The What allows Akhtar to  “lift the curtain (hijab)” on the gender politics and contradictions within Islamic scripture. Zerina starts to pick holes within the account of Muhammad’s* life and the subjugation of women within Islamic cultures. Zerina’s desire to humanize the prophet is met with horror by her father and we see once and for all that Afzal’s love for his daughter is tied to her obedience.

The Who and The What is an interesting portrayal into the complex relationship between a father and his daughter. Alia Peck’s performance of Zerina is very convincing but ultimately Afzal drives the story.  The play ends with a bittersweet reconciliation between Afzal and Zerina that reminds the audience how personal “gender politics” really are.

The Who & The What centers on characters that are lovable, flawed and above all human. We are clearly meant to empathize with these confused and conflicted characters. The Who & The What adds a new flavour to the American melting pot and certainly leaves the audience with plenty of food for thought.

*May blessings be upon Him.

Queen’s Note:
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