In the fall of 2012, Lincoln Center theater produced Ayad Akhtar’s first play, Disgraced, a witty and compelling comedy of bad manners dealing with the topical and controversial subject of Muslim identity in this country. In the play, an urbane dinner party, thrown by a successful Pakistani-American lawyer and his Caucasian artist wife at their well-appointed Upper East Side home, breaks down into an unexpectedly brutal examination of the faith and politics of the hosts and their guests. The play, which received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and will be seen again in New York this fall, this time on Broadway, established Akhtar as a new and exciting voice in the American theater. Born in New York City and raised in Wisconsin to Pakistani immigrants, the actor turned playwright gives voice to a community rarely represented on our stages, grappling with the thorny issues facing an immigrant generation caught between 21st-century mores and the conservative traditions of their faith. In a recent conversation, Akhtar talked to me about his current play, The Who & the What, now playing through July 27 at Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater, and the underlying themes and passions in his writing.
How would you describe The Who & the What?
It’s a family story, about two sisters and their father. One of the sisters, Zarina, is writing a book which is a humanizing portrait of the Prophet Muhammad, and her father who’s a believing, practicing Muslim—not particularly rigid, but certainly conservative—doesn’t know that. And over the course of the play he finds out about the book. But it’s also a play about how the image of the prophet figures in the lives of these folks, in the mythological space, notably the life of the lead character, Zarina. The deeper subject matter of the play is the Ummah’s—the Muslim community’s—relationship to the prophet. And the other side of the play is really just an immigrant tale of Afzal, the father, coming to embrace America on one level and, on the other, his continued at-oddness with American life and also with his own daughter’s choices. It’s a very old tale which is told again and again. I’m just telling it in this particular community.