For Presidents’ Day, every grade school student in the country learns the story of George Washington confessing to his father that he cut down a cherry tree. This is an iconic, emblematic part of U.S. history that demonstrates Washington’s virtue: He was unable to tell a lie, even as a child.
Unfortunately, the story isn’t true; it was completely fabricated by one of Washington’s early biographers. Still, it persists in our country’s mythology and has been passed down through generations, separating us even further from who Washington really was, and what he really did as a leader in the American Revolution and our nation’s first president.
This story is referenced in Ayad Akhtar’s provocative play The Rep's "The Who & The What," about Zarina (Soraya Broukhim), a young Muslim woman who wants to know who the prophet Muhammad really was, and what he actually did. She tries to cut through the mythology around the holy man and misinterpretations of stories in the Quran to imagine the founder of Islam as a complex, complicated man. In her novel, she speculates that if Muhammad possessed ordinary human passions and flaws, his life and teachings become even more extraordinary.
But Zarina’s book, and its potentially blasphemous take on the prophet, is just one of the things that is complicating life for her family – Muslims from Pakistan who settled comfortably in Atlanta before she and her sister Mahwish (Nikita Tewani) were born. Like many immigrant stories, there is tension between the girls and their father, Afzal, about how to adapt to American culture while retaining their own traditions.
There are arguments about what kind of men the girls should marry and where the daughters’ loyalties lie – to themselves or in obedience to their conservative father. There is also great love between a father and his children that sometimes leads Afzal to contradict the strict teachings of Islam and sometimes dictates that he reinforce them. The specificity of this story makes its themes even more recognizable and accessible.
In addition to complex cultural questions, the play addresses gender politics head-on. This comes starkly into focus after hearing that Akhtar was inspired to write this play in response to Shakespeare’s "The Taming of the Shrew," a notoriously problematic story about men "breaking" and dominating strong women.
For all these thorny complications, Akhtar insists that the play is a comedy, and indeed there are some funny moments in the production, currently running in the Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Studio. Awkward first dates, gossip between sisters about boys and sex, family friction between generations and the lengths a father will go to finding a perfect husband for his daughter are all sitcom tropes designed for laughs.
But underneath the comedy, "The Who & the What" explores deeply painful riffs between loved ones and lovers. As the father, Brian Abraham finds many shades of the multi-faceted Afzal, a self-made man who says repeatedly that he toils only for his daughters’ happiness, but whose actions also lead to great pain and resentment. Abraham morphs from mischievous to mournful, fiercely protective and loving, to outraged and stifling with surprising ease. On a stage full of complicated characters, his conflicts are the most interesting — they are also the least resolved at the end of the play.
Constructed in a series of short scenes, some of which jump ahead several years, "The Who & The What" has a very different feel from Akhtar’s other well-known plays, "The Invisible Hand," and the Pulitzer Prize winning "Disgraced," which were produced at the Milwaukee Rep over the last two seasons. Its small glimpses at important moments in the characters’ lives give the audience the same fragmented narrative that Zarina complains about in books about the prophet.
It complicates our understanding of their arcs and prevents us from knowing them more fully. This is most problematic between the final two scenes when so much has happened, causing so many changes for the characters. It feels jarring and a bit disjointed.
But rightfully, the spare ending leaves many questions unanswered, underlining the complexity of the conflicts addressed. Just as a charming, simple story of Washington – or Mohammad – might be easier to hear and understand, a facile and reductive end to the play would not ring true.
Instead we are left with more messy contradictions, made literal in the beautifully rendered set by Andrew Boyce. The intricate pattern of a traditional Islamic screen moves from order to disorder, from transparent to somewhat opaque as your eye moves across the stage.