For Pulitzer-Prize winning playright Ayad Akhtar, the spark for his latest show, The Who & The What, running at La Jolla Playhouse through March 9, came in an unlikely location—a New York City taxicab.
“I saw an ad for Kiss Me, Kate and I thought, ‘Why are people so obsessed with this play? This doesn’t make any sense. It’s not truthful to gender politics or to the way they have evolved,’” says Akhtar, adding that his ideas are never real ideas until three or four thoughts come together into one. In the case of his latest show, a funny and quirky narrator à la “Annie Hall,” coupled with The Taming of the Shrew and Akhtar’s reflections on his own friends’ lives and experiences, resulted in the script for The Who & The What.
In the play, Zarina is the proverbial willful daughter at odds with her father, and it’s her book about women and Islam that threatens to tear the family apart. “It’s both a departure and a continuity of some of my other work, which takes on different points of view about Muslim life in America,” says Akhtar. “There’s a warmth to The Who & The What that’s different in tone compared to Disgraced. There’s a respectful but very uncompromising questioning of how the Prophet operates in the psyche of the community.”
It wasn’t always like that for Akhtar, who describes his early writing as attempts at Continental European modernism. “I was trying to write in spare settings that were muted of specificity—Beckettesque, or God-awful Adrienne Kennedy wannabe plays,” he recalls with a laugh. It wasn’t until he came to terms with his own roots as a Pakistani-American that he began to write with a specificity that has found universal appeal.
“In developing The Who & The What, audiences are always surprised at how familiar the characters feel,” Akhtar observes. Indeed, if you’ve ever had an overbearing sister, or a protective father with slightly old-fashioned Republican values, you’ll recognize Zarina and her well-intentioned father, Afzal.