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Director Eleanor Holdridge returned to Round House Theatre to direct the regional premiere of playwright-screenwriter Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who & The What,” on stage through June 19. She directed David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright’s stage adaptation of “Double Indemnity” there in 2012.
Akhtar’s play “Disgraced,” which focused on Muslim-American sociopolitical themes, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In “The Who & The What,” he explores the conflict that arises within a Pakistani-American family when Zarina, an independent-minded daughter, writes a controversial book that offends her conservative father and sister.
Holdridge, a Baltimore native with a bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a master’s in fine arts from the Yale School of Drama, has worked Off-Broadway as well as locally at Theatre J, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Olney Theatre Center for the Arts. Among her multiple and varied credentials, she has been Resident Assistant Director at the Shakespeare Theatre, and has directed and taught students at the Yale School of Drama, New York University’s graduate program and the Juilliard School. She currently is Head of Directing and Producer at The Catholic University of America.
Upcoming projects for Holdridge include the rolling world premiere of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” from Nov. 23 to Dec. 18 at Round House, and the world premiere of Meg Miroshnik’s adaptation of “Fickle: A Fancy French Farce” from March 1 to April 2, 2017, at Olney Theatre.
Holdridge answered CultureSpotMC’s questions about directing “The Who & The What.”
Why did you agree to direct this play?
When I read the play, I loved the dynamic of the family. On the surface, it may seem to be a play about what it is to be a Muslim American, but actually, it’s about the dynamic of any family that loves each other and has differing convictions. It is about the inner ideals that people have within the family at conflict with the very real and very true love. So what Ahktar does is, I think, quite universal even though he speaks specifically to the Muslim-American experience.
Among the multiple intertwined themes of this play—religion, tradition, family, gender and identity–what do you find most compelling?
Religion is something, in a way, that takes care of itself; it is a vital part of the characters’ experience, yet the specifics of the religion are not what the play is about. Instead, it is about identity–of which gender is a part. Who you are inside a family and living in the world, and how that is expressed is the heartbeat of the play. The what of religion and tradition and even gender is important, but how identity is expressed or repressed within daily family dynamics is a key. All these other themes bubble up when the unexpressed identity comes to the fore.
What is the significance of the title?
The character Zarina says of the prophet, “I have this sense of Muhammed, of who he was. We know all these things about the prophet. Or we think we do….It’s all like this monument to what we’ve made of him. But who he really was? We don’t know.” But she could just as well be talking about all of the other characters, including herself in the play. The what is tangible, the who lies under the surface, ineffable and hard to pin down.
What do you think the playwright is saying about Islamic vs. American values?
That it is impossible to codify either. There are as many ways of being Islamic as there are of being American.
How does humor work in this play?
Through character. There are set-ups and jokes cunningly worked into the play—both character-conscious jokes and situational ones. However, Ahktar weds them seamlessly with the internal stakes and drives of each character, so it never seems forced. There is a kind of ebullience and joy to most of the characters that leads to true comedy. Structurally, it is a true comedy in the Aristotelian sense: It is the celebration of the life force, of marriage, and of ultimate renewal.
Who do you think is the most important character in the play?
The relationship between Afzal (the father) and Zarina is at the heart of the play—neither one is more important, but they balance each other. Both larger-than-life, deeply loving and with profound convictions, their characters’ love and differences drive the action of the play. There schism is both generational and political, even while they find joy in the love of the family in the same way. In directing the play, I have tried to emphasize what is similar in the two characters, in order to showcase their differences.
How do Zarina’s monologues frame the play? Do you think she expresses the playwright’s point of view?
I don’t think any one character in “The Who & The What” particularly expresses the playwright’s view, but he uses the characters of Zarina and Eli (Zarina’s husband) to bring a conversation around the issues that I believe are dear to his heart. If anyone is closest to his point of view, I believe it is Eli with his ideals of inclusion, acceptance and empathy.
What are the challenges of staging this play?
Like many wonderful contemporary plays, the beginnings and endings of scenes are written with a “button,” a specific ending (on a joke or a question) at the end of the scene. Then the script calls for blackout. However, with multiple locations and the need to set up the scenery/furniture for each of them, the challenge becomes how to keep the action of the play going while this happens. With the brilliant set designer, Luciana Stecconi, I worked to keep them fluid and seamless, by following the silent movement of characters through those transitions. It took a while to come up with a performance language, but eventually, the cast and I came up with a way to work with a double revolve to interact with each other and the set in a way that didn’t disrupt the intent of the playwright.
And finally, what do you think is the purpose of the playwright’s somewhat shocking (especially to an “aging” audience) references to anal sex in the play?
I don’t think that Ahktar uses the reference of “anal sex” for the purpose of shocking an “aging audience,” but rather to show both the disconnect of generations and cultures. For American teens, it has become almost commonplace to use anal sex as a way of having sex while avoiding pregnancy; for Pakistani Muslims, it’s different. I believe what’s actually most poignant about this particular plot point is the potential powerlessness of women in this particular culture, but also any male-dominant one. The pressure that young women are put under to make their men happy can be intense. Mahwish (Zarina’s sister) is trapped into agreeing to something she doesn’t want as a way of appeasing her man, and being a “good” potential wife. The fact that she is troubled that she will go to Hell because of the Quran’s teachings on the topic, further illustrates her lack of voice within the situation. But I believe in the broader feminist context of Ahktar’s play, he speaks not just for the women of Islam, but for women who are brought up in any male-centric culture, including, I believe, our own.