The Who & The What
Huntington Theatre Company
Calderwood Pavilion, South End
Through May 7th
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
There is something special happening on the stage of the Calderwood Pavilion. The Who & The What, by Ayad Akhtar and directed by M. Bevin O’Gara, is the story of Afzal (Rom Barkhordar) and his two daughters Mahwish (Turna Mete) and Zarina (Aila Peck). Afzai is from Pakistan and has made his home in the United States where he has raised Mahwish and Zarina. He lost his wife to cancer a few years earlier and misses her deeply but has an upbeat outlook on life. He has worked hard and become successful moving from driving a cab to owning 30% of the taxis in Atlanta. Wth his success he has provided his family with a good life. He is a loving father and wants only the best for his offspring. Afzai is also a conservative Muslim who has raised his daughters in the faith.
Mahwish is studying nursing and Zarina has graduated from Harvard and is now writing a novel about “women and Islam”. Afzal is taking a rather unique approach in the culture of arranged marriages by opening an account on muslimlove.com with Zarina’s profile and meets with prospective suitors for his daughter. This results in a very funny meeting at the local coffee shop wth Eli (Joseph Marrella) an American convert to Islam. While this certainly is a great intrusion into the life of Zarina you can’t help but be taken by the devotion Afzai has for both his daughter and his religion.
While Zarina is devoted to her religion she is also questioning it. Her reading of the Koran is at odds with Afzai’s and this results in some heated, and quite humorous discussions on the subject. Compromises are made and Zarina does fall in love with Eli. All seems well until her novel entitled The Who & The What is published. In it Zarina questions many of the interpretations particularly the requirement by many that women wear a veil. This creates a conflict between Zarina and her father who is unable to accept these views and feels it reflects negatively on the family and may result in a loss of faith as well as exposing them to danger.
Zarina and Mahwish are devoted to each other and their father, which makes it painful to watch as this rupture occurs in the family as well as the strain placed on Eli and his relationship with Zarina.
This is a play that very easily could have slipped into political correctness and sermonizing, but it certainly does not. It is an honest look at the conflicts, sometimes very deep, that can drive wedges between family members. Yes, this is a funny play, but it is also deep and moving. It is also very human. Rom Barkhordar is simply outstanding as Afzai. His rich voice and emotion fill the stage. His humor is natural and wonderfully delivered. And while audience members may cringe at some of Afzai’s views about the roles of men and women, Mr. Barkhordar leaves us with no doubt about the decency and love this man possesses.
The Who & The What is not a play that preaches to the audience. Ayad Akhtar does not give us the Ozzie and Harriet version of a Muslim family. He is honest and open about the conflicts that take place in a modern Muslim family that has assimilated into American culture without losing their identity. It is something people of all religions can be touched by. I know I certainly was.
In Boston, a city rich in good theatre, The Who & The What is a must see play. You will leave the theater happy that you spent time with this at times crazy but very interesting, warm, and touching family. Don’t miss it.