BWW Interview: THE WHO & THE WHAT'S Tala Ashe Ignites the Stage
Playwright Ayad Akhtar, who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play DISGRACED, is back with another searing work that devastatingly explores the role of women in Islam.
THE WHO & THE WHAT aims a laser on a tightknit Pakistani-American family living in Atlanta. It's headed by a tyrannical (albeit loving) father of two grown women trying to forge their own paths, one as a writer, the other as a nurse.
Tala Ashe portrays Mahwish, the younger of the two sisters torn by the cultures that mold their lives. The more traditional Mahwish wants Zarina (played passionately by Nadine Malouf) to marry first so she can follow her lead. Zarina has another vision, involving a controversial book she is writing that is destined to ignite their Muslim community.
Ashe, a native of Iran, empathizes with all the characters. She grew up in Ohio after her family left the war-torn country in the 1980s. And her personal experiences heighten the play's emotional depth charges, she said.
"You don't really need to know about the Koran to understand the show," Ashe said. "The story is universal-it's about what it's like to be human. The specificity"-of Akhtar-about the Muslim culture is what he chooses to do. I think there's a program note that says the story happens to be about this brown family on stage, but what they're talking about is-I think, I hope-is universal. It's about both the religious and the cultural lives of this family," she said. Any family, she added.
Bernard White, who portrays Afzal, the generous but narrow-minded patriarch, is especially dismayed by his Americanized daughter's interpretation of the Prophet Muhammad. "The father is not willing to question his traditions or look at them in a scholarly way," Ashe said. To have a daughter who does just that sends shock waves through the family and the community.
"I think the sisters come from the same place but take different paths," Ashe said. "Mahwish is always trying to do the right thing, to please everyone, and she has this idea of where she will end up and what she will do." Mahwish is the peacekeeper of the family, she said, forever trying to placate her sister and father, often at the expense of her own well-being.
"We both reject the place we thought we wanted to be," Ashe said. "It's a paradigm-we try to please and appease dad, especially since their mother died years before. Zarina is inquisitive and curious about losing the man she loved before she met Eli, a white American convert to Islam. That experience takes her down a more complicated path," she said.
"What we see ultimately is Zarina's desire for individuation, and it breaks their father's heart. Writing the book is an act of defiance. Mahwish's complicated relationship with her fiancé is a traumatic compromise between tradition and her own desires, she said. "She believes in the idea of destiny and things being meant to be. It's real for her. We all grow up watching Disney movies and we expect the man to be 'the one'-the right pick." Mahwish's fiancé is dad-approved and because of that she's able to turn a blind eye to other factors that affect their relationship.
"When she says 'I feel mad,' you"-the audience-understand why. She's repressed her own feelings for so many years, she's confused by her feelings with her GRE instructor, which is very dangerous in a way."
Betrayal, loss of innocence and seemingly irreparable conflict shadow the tale, Ashe said, but there's always the possibility of reconciliation. "Mahwish has a real fear she will lose everything, be completely disowned by her father. And yet, I think her mind has a kind of buoyancy. She's being pulled in a lot of different directions and she's desperately trying to stand still while these rubber bands are pulling her side to side," Ashe said.
"She believes in her family and wants to heal them and loves them deeply. Healing the wound of her mother's death becomes a goal and explains why she wants to become a nurse," she said. "Family means everything to her. That is the thread that holds her together."
Mahwish's relationship with her father is complicated, just as in any family, she said. "Her individuation is not as extreme as Zarina's but she's stayed on the narrow path, and through the events of the play she realizes she can come outside that a bit and her father will still love her.
"Maybe she has the authority to move through the world as she wants to and not so much as what he needs her to be," she said.
"I think there are several threads in this story-one about family and consequences of separation and the pain that follows," she said.
"And then there's religion and culture and how they've been conflated. But they're actually separate. What is it to dissect this and what is the pushback for identity?"
Ashe is grateful for the humor that is also threaded throughout the play. "There is so much humor: it might be dark humor, but it's humor. It makes us not feel so separate. Hearing the audience laugh is so powerful for us," she said. "The play changed so much during the rehearsal process and he [Akhtar] changed the ending three times. We're all starting to relax with it and play with it," she said, "and the audience is left with many questions at the end."
The Who & the What is playing at LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater at the Claire Tow Theater. It has been extended through July 27.