La Jolla Playhouse’s The Who & The What takes a poke at tradition vs. modern life

By Diana Saenger

Considering the growing diversity of our country’s population, “The Who & The What,” penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar, is a timely look at a conservative Muslim family in Atlanta, Ga. The production will have its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, Feb. 11-March 9.

Zarina (Monika Jolly), now married to Eli (Kai Lennox), is a smart and outspoken young woman who has written a new book about women and Islam. Its release sparks disagreements with her conventional father Afzal (Bernard White) and sister Mahwish (Meera Rohit Kumbhani).

Directing the action is Kimberly Senior (“The Whipping Man”) who directed Akhtar’s acclaimed “Disgraced.” Senior said she wanted to work with Akhtar again, but was also impressed by the attention “The Who & The What” garnered at its developmental reading last year during the Playhouse’s inaugural DNA New Work Series.

“When I came for the first rehearsal and a public reading at the Playhouse, it was so special,” Senior said. “I’ve been working professionally in theater for 20 years and have never experienced such an authentic engagement with the audience and material. At that moment, I knew we were working with something special.”

Senior said the theme of “The Who & The What” is love.

“First it’s a laugh out loud comedy, but it’s also a poignant, rich story about faith, the struggle between passion and reason, and the search for love — both familial and romantic.

“It’s also exciting when we see actors on stage as the main characters of this play, regardless of race and creed, as they are the heart of this family,” she said.

The subject of people from other countries and differing beliefs living successfully together is an ongoing challenge, globally.

“And we don’t have a model for it,” Senior said. “It’s a new way to see how our older religions, faiths, traditions and rituals interface with a modern global world, and how we maintain what makes us individuals.”

Finding the right actress for the role of Zarina was important to Senior. “Monica did an original reading for us last year and eventually an audition,” Senior said. “Then we auditioned about 75 women coast to coast and realized she was actually the right one for the role. She’s terrific, as is all the cast.”

Senior believes the characters are people everyone will relate to. “Everyone has parents who want their children to get married, and it’s usually normal for some children to be defiant,” she said. “I hope that as people watch the play, they will think, ‘these people are just like me.’

“The way this play affects me with its challenge and joy, and the way I see it affecting others, is an amazing way to touch other people’s lives. It’s about love and how we need equal doses of reason and passion. Maybe those who see it will go to sleep at night thinking differently than when they woke up that morning and that’s exciting.”

‘The Who & The What

Feb. 11-March 9

Potiker Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse,

UC San Diego campus

Tickets: From $15

Box Office: (858) 550-1010