By Diana Saenger
Parents and their children often see things differently — especially when the offspring are maturing. Such is the case with one Muslim-American family, which plays out in the world premiere of Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who & The What” at La Jolla Playhouse through March 9.
The drama, directed by Kimberly Senior, is thought-provoking and entertaining. It flows easily and is packed with faith issues, understanding, and much humor.
Afzal (Bernard White) is a conventional Muslim living in America and worried his daughters are forgetting their traditional upbringing, especially since his wife’s death.
At first older daughter Zarina (Monika Jolly) seems totally secure in her life and where she’s going as she attempts to warn her younger sister Mahwish (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) that the sexual acts with her boyfriend, are not wise.
But Mahwish retaliate, accusing Zarina of not moving forward with her own life after the man she loved married someone else.
Afzal becomes at odds with Zarina about a book she’s written on women and Islam that includes comments about the Prophet Muhammad. It infuriates him that she will not let him read it or tell him much about its contents. He also wants her to find a new man and get married.
When Afzal meets Eli (Kai Lennox), an American who converted to Muslim, he learns Eli met Zarina sometime earlier. Afzal sets a trap to force a face-to-face meeting with Eli by using a new e-mail he wrote as Zarina. Eli is at first annoyed about the deceit, but eventually finds things about Afzal that make him agree to meet with Zarina. Getting her to agree becomes an even bigger undertaking.
The simple setting in the sparse stage of the Potiker Theatre works well to keep the audience’s attention on the escalating conflicts of the story. Proficient direction by Senior is apparent in this play with many layers.
The cast of four does an excellent job portraying the distinct personalities. Jolly creates a pleasant demeanor in Zarina as she chops vegetables for the family meal, but as she quickly becomes the heart of this drama, Zarina must face her own plight — standing up against her father.
Lennox’s laidback Eli is resilient with his newfound friends, but not afraid to stand his own ground. Kumbhani infuses Mahwish with a youthful sprit; she both wants and does not want advice from her family members.
White is the standout in the role of Afzal, the ideal father who loves his girls, but perhaps does not know what’s best for them. His wrath is an erupting volcano when they challenge their heritage.—
If you go:
“The Who & The What,” runs matinees and evenings through March 9 at Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD campus. Tickets from $15 at (858) 550-1010 and lajollaplayhouse.org