Ayad Akhtar’s provocative Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Disgraced,” which centers on a dinner party that erupts into discord, recrimination, and violence, struck Huntington Theatre Company audiences last year with the concussive force of a 2-by-4 to the head. The drama, the most produced play at American regional theaters in the 2015-16 season, grappled with thorny questions about the treatment of Muslims and their identity in the post-9/11 world. It sparked heated post-show discussions, with upward of 100 people attending talkbacks at the Huntington some nights.
In comparison, Akhtar’s 2014 play, “The Who & the What,” which the Huntington is producing at the Calderwood Pavilion beginning Friday, is on the surface a more subdued work. It doesn’t show Muslim characters wrestling with their “otherness” in the current political climate. Instead, the play looks inward at complicated yet often-unexamined conflicts about gender, faith, and family within the Muslim community.
“The identity politics of being Muslim have nothing to do with ‘The Who & the What,’ ” says Akhtar at a quiet Bowery restaurant on a recent afternoon. “The characters are grappling with what their faith means or . . . doesn’t mean. They’re not grappling with the political meaning of their faith.”
Says M. Bevin O’Gara, who’s directing the Huntington production, “It’s not about how Islam is in conflict with the West or in conflict with white ideals, but how Islam is in conflict with itself.”
The play centers on a Pakistani-American family and the generational culture clashes that crop up when traditional gender roles and interpretations of the Koran get challenged. The conflict revolves around oldest daughter Zarina (Aila Peck), a Harvard graduate and writer working on a novel about women and Islam, and her conservative Muslim father, Afzal (Rom Barkhordar), who started a successful cab company in Atlanta and is living out the American dream.
Comedy grows out of Afzal’s attempts to find a husband for Zarina by covertly creating an online profile for her on a Muslim dating site — then screening the guys before introducing them to his unsuspecting daughter. Through the site, he meets Eli (Joseph Marrella), a white convert who runs the local mosque and soup kitchen, and convinces the young man that he and Zarina would be a good match. Meanwhile, Zarina’s sister Mahwish (Turna Mete), is engaged to her longtime boyfriend, but is crushing on her handsome GRE instructor.
As for Zarina’s incendiary novel, she argues that it will attempt to humanize the prophet Muhammad and paint a more complex, truthful portrait of this holy figure, while also exploring the origins of Islamic women wearing the hijab. But when Afzal discovers the manuscript for the book, all hell breaks loose and the rupture threatens to tear the family apart forever.
“She’s struggling with her desire to be a good daughter and to bridge the gap between her father’s vision of Islam and her own,” says Akhtar, who was raised by Pakistani parents, both doctors, in a secular Muslim household in Wisconsin.
For Peck, who plays Zarina, the generation gap between parent and child lies at the heart of the play. “Parents often teach their kids what they were taught works best,” she says. “When the child questions that or doesn’t do that or does it in a different way, there’s huge misunderstandings that can express itself in humor. It can express itself in aggression. It can express itself in quips. It’s about negotiating how the child will eventually decide what is true for them.”
Despite her abiding love for her father, Zarina harbors unresolved resentment toward him after he had asked her to break up with her fiance because he didn’t want her to marry outside of the faith. “Her attempt to correct or heal the wound has taken her deep into the history of the prophet and how he has been discussed and framed and reframed, and how stories of his life have been told and then mistold to justify people’s decisions,” Akhtar says.
While American audiences may not see the play as a lightning rod, Muslim audiences may feel differently. In Chicago, one friend told Akhtar he was very moved by the play and the characters, but denounced him for what he saw as blasphemies. “This is a play that would have the theater burned down in a Muslim country,” Akhtar says.
O’Gara recalls that when the Huntington was staging “Disgraced” last year, it sparked questions from the staff internally about what it meant to be doing a play like “Disgraced” at such a fraught time and the responsibility of an artist to represent truth. She and the staff wondered, “Are we also reinforcing a belief or a fear? Does this re-confirm what people think of Muslims through putting on this work?”
Zarina’s book is one that Akhtar himself has considered writing, and the idea found its way into this play. “We still don’t look at our scripture as metaphor,” he says. “Access to the real wisdom in the Islamic tradition is perhaps blocked by literal scriptural adherence to the tradition.”
Despite the heady subject matter, “The Who & the What” was inspired by the cultural and generational conflicts in Norman Lear sitcoms like “All in the Family,” but also Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” the polarizing comedy about headstrong Katherine and the attempts by Petruchio to turn her into his compliant bride. On his way home one night, Akhtar saw an ad on the side of a bus for the Cole Porter musical “Kiss Me, Kate,” itself inspired by “Taming of the Shrew,” a play whose misogyny has been widely debated.
‘I thought. . . an American adaptation of “Taming of the Shrew,” set in a Pakistani-American family. Bam!’
“I thought to myself, why do people keep doing this play? Nobody gets the gender politics. It makes no sense. It enrages women. It feels untrue. And then I thought, wait, I get the gender politics of the play, because that’s the gender politics of my culture. That’s where I come from. And I thought, oh, wow, wait: an American adaptation of ‘Taming of the Shrew,’ set in a Pakistani-American family. Bam! That was it.”
Akhtar says that Zarina is a composite of two “fascinating, strong, and brilliant women” of Pakistani background whom he knows personally. “The depths of their dutiful qualities towards their fathers is a source of great consternation and pain in their lives, but also real through-lines for them. Those contradictions were just stunning to me.”
“I always recognized that if I had been born a girl, my life would be very different, because I saw the pain it caused my mother and her sisters. So in some ways the play is a kind of attempt to give shape to that pain.”
The Who & the What
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, March 31-May 7. Tickets start at $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.orgChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@