Alaji (Mahwish) and Monika Jolly (Zarina). Photo by Michael Brunk.

Ayad Akhtar’s ‘The Who & The What’ Takes a Philosophical Lens to Love and Islam

Faith, family, and feminism lie at the heart of this new play by Ayad Akhtar.

French philosopher Jacques Derrida poses a theory for the two modes of love: the who and the what—the latter being one’s describable qualities, the former being that which is difficult to articulate, or a person’s essence. This philosophical question is what Pakistani-American writer and actor Ayad Akhtar describes as the seed of his play The Who & the What. Directed by Samip Raval and co-produced by South Asian arts organization Pratidhwani, the show follows the story of a Pakistani-American family as they struggle to locate the “who” of the Prophet Muhammad, alongside gendered expectations within both their family and the larger context of faith traditions.

Seattle theatergoers might be familiar with Akhtar’s work; his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced was produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2016. Akhtar’s work centers contemporary Western Muslim identities, and strives to challenge the “militant East/West dichotomy,” Akhtar said in an interview with the Bush Theatre.

“There is no universe in which I start online dating,” 32-year-old writer Zarina (Monika Jolly) says to her sister Mahwish (Alaji) in the opening scene. Unbeknownst to Zarina, her bold father Afzal (Abhijeet Rane) has created a profile for her on muslimlove.com. In a modern take on arranged marriage, Afzal interviews men before bestowing his approval. After several meetings, he finds a suitable match for Zarina: Eli (Andre Nelson), a white Muslim convert from Detroit. After an initial objection to her father’s secret matchmaking, Zarina agrees to meet Eli.

“I have this sense of who Muhammad was, [but] none of these things point to a real person,” Zarina says to Eli on their first date as she shares her attempts to locate that “who” of the Prophet through a novel she is writing. She questions the Prophet’s sexual desire and contradictions in an attempt to locate his imperfect humanity. In one poignant scene, Afzal and Mahwish confront Zarina on her manuscript, a move that brings up Zarina’s objection to patriarchal structures within their family. “You covered me up, you erased me, and I let you,” Zarina says to Afzal of his attempts to control her romantic life. This moment is made more intense by the audience’s proximity to the stage, possible thanks to Lex Marcos’ theater-in-the-round design. In this tense scene, both Rane and Jolly liberate elements of their character that had been hidden throughout the play. As an acting duo, the two are tremendous. Rane’s soft, sensitive, yet patronizing Afzal is multifaceted, and a complement to Jolly’s grounded and witty Zarina. I was enthralled by both them and by Akhtar’s writing.

Zarina’s attempts to locate the “who” of the Prophet are polarizing within her family and community. Yet, she argues, “we can’t not keep saying things because we are afraid of what someone is going to do.”

stage@seattleweekly.com

ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., artswest.org. $17–$38. All ages. Ends Sun., Oct. 1.

More in Arts & Culture

The Kinesthetic Truth of Jerome Robbins

Pacific Northwest Ballet opens its season with a centennial celebration of legendary choreographer.

Musicians Rally for a Free #SaveTheShowbox Concert at City Hall

The event corresponds with the City’s public land use hearing regarding expanding the Pike Place Market Historic District.

Welcome to the new Hugo House. Photo by Seth Sommerfeld
A New Chapter For Hugo House

After two nomadic years, the nonprofit Seattle writing center is ready to open its new, expanded home.

The finale of ‘Volta’ brings the X Games to Cirque du Soleil. Photo by Patrice Lamoureux
Cirque du Xtreme

While thematically uncentered, Cirque du Soleil’s BMX-adorned Volta still entertains.

Walking Seattle Art Museum’s halls is just one of the options available on Museum Day. Photo by Natali Wiseman
Snag a Free Museum Day Ticket

Smithsonian Magazine ‘s September 22 celebration opens the doors to some of the region’s best cultural institutions.

Angel Olsen: Always worth a closer inspection. Photo by Taylor Boylston
The Bare Bones of Angel Olsen

Seattle Weekly chats with the reflective singer-songwriter ahead of her Seattle solo show.

Illustration by Taylor Dow
Polaroid Picture

Mercury and Uranus reveal details and surprises.

If you see the poster art for Mandy and are surprised it’s wild, it’s your own damn fault.
Totally Uncaging the Cage

Nicolas Cage taps into his manical best for the acid-trip fantasy revenge film, ‘Mandy.’

Most Read