ArtsWest to bring Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who & The What” to the stage, a show that peers into the modern Muslim American experience
Mat Wright believes in the transformative power of a story.
That’s why the artistic director at ArtsWest is always on the lookout for talented writers – and storytellers who create strong, dynamic and authentic characters.
Wright had heard about Ayad Akhtar, the Pakistani-American playwright, novelist and screenwriter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play “Disgraced.”
Wright had a copy of Akhtar’s “The Who & The What” on his desk for a couple of years before he read it. When he began to pour through its pages, he became more and more intrigued.
“I was really taken by it,” Wright said. “The play has fully fleshed out characters – and it’s four very distinct voices. They feel like totally three-dimensional people, and, because of that, you fall in love with them.”
“The Who & The What” will run Thursdays through Saturdays from Thursday, Sept. 7 to Sunday, Oct. 1 at ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave SW.
Monika Jolly stars as Zarina. She also played the role in the world premiere of the play at La Jolla Playhouse in 2014.
The cast features Andre Nelson as Eli, Alaji as Mahwish and Abhijeet Rane as Afzal.
The plot centers on a Pakistani immigrant Afzal and his two daughters Mahwish and Zarina.
“It’s a family story,” Wright said. “And one of the quickest paths to understanding is to talk about families. We all have one.”
Zarina is writing a controversial novel about the prophet Muhammad, which creates tension in the family. A fourth character Eli is a young convert to Islam, a bridge between Zarina’s modern life and heritage.
Wright said that play provides a window into the Muslim American experience.
“In our current political climate, there are struggles with Islamophobia,” he said.
He believes that theatre can serve as a place to unite people.
“In the theatre, we want to get a diverse set of actors on stage, and we want equitable representation in terms of the stories we tell,” Wright said. “We’re telling stories about what it means to be a human being. Theatre is a place to come together. There’s a real magic that can happen there.”
“The Who & The What” is being co-produced by Pratidhwani, a nonprofit that supports the work of South Asian artists.
Agastya Kohli, artistic director of the nonprofit’s drama wing, said he immediately had ideas for casting the play after reading it.
Kohli called Wright to see if they could work together. “His response was, ‘I was just going reach out to you,’” Kohli recalled. “I guess I beat him to it.”
Kohli helped create a cultural advisory committee for the production. “Let’s get the community involved in what’s authentic,” he said. “Let’s just ask the people who have lived this life instead of researching it on Google.”
Kohli worked with ACT theatre when it produced Akhtar’s “The Invisible Hand.”
“That was a crackling hot drama,” Kohli said. “It was so crisp is crackled.”
He believes that “The Who & The What” has a similar energy – but with a comedic twist.
“It has so many twists and turns,” he said. “It takes you deeper and deeper. Everyone needs to see this play for the powerful storytelling.”
Kohli added that Pratidhwani has worked to help South Asian actors since it was founded in 2003.
“You have to enable and empower the artist,” he said. “What’s the point of being an actor if you don’t get to perform.”
For tickets to the play or for more information about ArtsWest, call 206-938-0339 or visit artswest.org.
For more information about Pratidhwani, visit www.pratidhwani.org.