Scenes from Marin Theatre Company’s “The Who and the What.” At top left, Mahwish (Annelyse Ahmad) and Eli (Patrick Alparone). At top right and bottom left, Mahwish (Annelyse Ahmad) and her father, Afzal (Alfredo Huereca). At bottom right, Mahwish and Afzal. Photos by Kevin Berne.
Two weeks after playwright Ayad Akhtar, who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Disgraced, returned the Marin Theatre Company with a “passionate and probing play” called The Who & The What, the critics are weighing in about the production. 

San Francisco Chronicle Theater Critic Lily Janiak writes that the play allows the traditional values of conservative Muslim paterfamilias Afzal (Alfredo Huereca), “including everything that secular liberals might find objectionable about them, to come from not hate but love. In a more just world, that empathetic portrayal wouldn’t feel fresh. But in 2019, that freshness — and Huereca’s superb rendering of it — is what elevates the show above boilerplate family drama.”

Marin Independent Journal theater critic Sam Hurwitt wrote, “Alfredo Huereca is appealingly outgoing and maddeningly overbearing as Zarina’s amusingly blunt and meddling father, who lives for his daughters but espouses deeply reactionary views on the roles of women and men.

With The Who & the What, Akhtar, whose Invisible Hand at MTC in 2016 drew rave reviews for weaving a financial lesson into the story of an American investment banker Nick Bright being kidnapped and held for ransom by a militant Islamist group in Pakistan, follows brilliant Pakistani-American writer Zarina who is committed to finishing her debut novel about women and Islam, but discouraged by months of writer’s block.

Her father, Afzal, tries to help the only way he knows how: by setting her up with a nice Muslim man. When Zarina meets Eli, a white convert who runs a local mosque, she finds balance: someone who both supports her work and pleases her father. Tensions erupt when Afzal and Zarina’s sister, Mahwish, read her finished manuscript. The implications of Zarina’s controversial claims about who the Prophet was, and what he has become, drive a wedge between the family members and force them all to confront the beliefs that define them.

MTC says the play, directed by Hana S. Sharif, is a “thrillingly fierce and heartfelt piece about identity, religion and the contradictions that make us who we are. Searingly fresh and fast-paced, The Who & The What celebrates the courage it takes to be yourself—even in the face of family and faith.”

Here’s a trailer for The Who & The What: 

And here’s playwright Ayad Akhtar explaining the who and the what of The Who & The What: