Thursday, March 7, 2019

Muslim family faces conflict in 'The Who & the What'

Afzal (Alfredo Huereca) angrily reads the book by Zarina (Denmo Ibrahim, left) while Mahwish (Annelyse Ahmad) and Eli (Patrick Alparone) listen.

Love of family tops the deep-seated conflicts that arise in Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who & the What,” presented by Marin Theatre Company.

Set in Atlanta in 2013, it starts innocuously when Mahwish (Annelyse Ahmad) urges her older sister, Zarina (Denmo Ibrahim), to get married. They are the adult daughters of Afzal (Alfredo Huereca), a widowed Palestinian immigrant and devout Muslim who owns a successful cab company.

He, too, wants Zarina to get married after putting the kibosh on the Catholic man she had loved. He even pretends he’s her on Muslim dating sites to find suitable suitors.

When Eli (Patrick Alparone), a convert who has become imam of a small congregation, meets with Afzal’s approval, Zarina reluctantly agrees to meet him in a local cafĂ©.

She tells Eli that she’s writing a book about gender politics but is suffering from writer’s block.

However, her book is not so much about gender politics as it is an examination of the prophet Muhammad. It focuses on his seventh and favorite wife, who’s his former daughter-in-law.

The tradition of Muslim women wearing a veil stems from this erotic relationship, Zarina contends.

In subsequent scenes, Zarina and Eli have married, she has completed her book, and Mahwish is married but not happily.

Still later, Mahwish is divorced and seeing a man she loves.

The climactic scene occurs after Afzal reads Zarina’s book and is enraged by what he regards as blasphemy, leading to a heated confrontation.

Afzal and Zarina reconcile long after he has shut her out of his life.
Akhtar’s script is meaty, yet nuanced, especially in its portrayal of Afzal, who’s torn between deep love for both daughters and devotion to his religious beliefs, including women’s subservience to men.

Director Hana S. Sharif manages these emotional ups and downs with skill and perception, aided by four fine actors.

For people who might not be familiar with the play’s Muslim references, the program includes helpful definitions. Displays in the lobby add more background.

Tim Mackabee’s set is a modern kitchen transformed into other settings by adding a few set pieces.

Lighting is by Wen-Ling Liao, costumes by Anna Oliver and sound by Everett Elton Bradman.

Running about an hour and 40 minutes without intermission, “The Who & the What” will continue through March 24 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley.

For tickets and information, call (415) 388-5208, or visit

Photos by Kevin Berne