Muslim-American Culture, with Passion, Insight and Humor, At La Jolla Playhouse

by Barry Jagoda

Vision, courage and a willingness to create theater out of a central conflict of our time was required for La Jolla Playhouse to stage a drama focusing on a Muslim-American family and the contradictions this religion has created all over the world.

The February 19 world premier of an unforgettable play “The Who & The What,” by Ayad Akhtar, was a triumph not merely because the production was a “crowd pleaser.”  Playhouse opening night audiences are not used to deep and thoughtful theater—which this production truly is.  And there was enough humor and superficiality to draw loud and heartfelt applause throughout the evening.

But if one seeks depth on the topic of religion, particularly the Islamic faith, go see this play!  It is a wonderful exposition of Muslim culture, with references to a homeland in Pakistan but otherwise the story plays out here at home in America, with a healthy infusion of wit and wisdom underlying much seriousness. The play is contemporary and set in Atlanta.  It will be performed nightly at The La Jolla Playhouse until March 9th with two matinees each weekend.

The story is of a traditional, but transplanted, deep believer in the Prophet Mohammed, but now a taxi driver in Atlanta whose wife (“broken” by her husband) died of cancer, leaving the father of two daughters struggling with their faith but a father whose Muslim tenants are NEVER doubted.   Of course the girls have other thoughts about this.  The three are seen below:

An unlikely fourth player is the part-time Iman of a local mosque, an intellectual plumber when not engaged in his faith work.  Named Eli, he ends up marrying one of the girls—fights ensue, but a baby is born.  An American convert to Islam, the young clergyman has a modern view of religious requirements.  Iman Eli and his wife, Zarina, the brilliant older of the Muslim women–she has a Harvard graduate degree in literature and her life’s work is a novel with a very questioning perspective on the Prophet–are pictured below

Kudos particularly go to Artistic Director Christopher Ashley who signed up this project after just one dramatic reading.  In so doing he accepted the enormous challenge of bringing a serious play on the subject of Muslim culture (particularly in its American context) to a venue which has been more partial to mass cultural theater than to an extremely thoughtful, highly cerebral examination of what is perhaps the world’s most vexing issue.  Religion, and particularly the Islamic faith of more than 1.2 billion persons world-wide, get an examination in this case study of the girls, their various boyfriends—and husbands—and the dictatorial influence of the father.

 

Playwright Aktar’s Pulitzer Prize in Drama for an earlier production, “Disgraced,” had not been announced prior to The Playhouse taking on this new story thus adding to the leap of faith by Ashley and his creative team.   They brought in Director Kimberly Senior (who had earlier worked with Aktar) and the four stars of the play:  Monika Jolly, Meera Kumbhani, Kai Lennox and Bernhard White.

To their lasting credit, the producers did not water down this project.  The many conflicts about The Prophet—particularly what the playwright calls “gender politics”–are present and the subject of many long, loud, passionate and very interesting arguments.

Amazingly, for all the bluster and anger in the family, there is a happy ending.  Dear Reader, you are invited, even encouraged, to go see for yourself.

 

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