The Who and the What
Susaan Jamshidi and Minita Gandhi.
© Michael Courier

The Who and the What

Victory Gardens Theater, Chicago

By Ayad Akhtar

Directed by Ron O J Parsons

Through July 12, 2015

Running time: 2 hours, one intermission

What distinguishes contemporary faith from the traditional? It’s often the ability to ask questions, to explore how meanings have changed, while still maintaining respect for its beliefs. That’s the question explored in Victory Gardens Theater’s new play.

“The Who and the What” is a smart, funny play about a conservative Pakistani-American family and their attempts to come to grips with modern realities while maintaining respect for tradition. Playwright Ayad Akhtar, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his first play, “Disgraced,” in 2012, has written believable characters who fight articulately about what they believe in. Director Ron O J Parsons has crafted a thought-provoking and moving play with Akhtar’s four characters.

Two sisters—Zarina (Susaan Jamshidi) and Mahwish (Minita Gandhi)—discuss their love lives or lack thereof as Zarina prepares dinner. Zarina is a writer, currently fighting writer’s block as she tries to finish her novel about “gender politics.” She won’t talk about the book, but admits that it’s about women and Islam. Her younger sister is engaged but knows she shouldn’t marry before her older sister.

Their widowed father, Afzal (Ram Barkhordar), still mourns his wife and has traditional dreams for his daughters. He’s also a hip entrepreneur who owns a large taxi company and has fully adopted modern technology. Afzal desperately wants his older daughter to marry. He poses as Zarina on and singles out Eli (Shane Kenyon), an imam and convert to Islam, as an appropriate suitor for his daughter. After Afzal and Eli meet, he persuades both Eli and Zarina to go on a date. At first, Zarina and Eli converse hesitantly, but form a bond over their discussion of Zarina’s book and Islamic teachings. (The book is titled “The Who and the What.”)

Act two’s five scenes, set a year later, introduce the couple’s married life and Afzal’s discovery of Zarina’s completed book, which Zarina knew would be controversial in the conservative Muslim community. The rest of the play illustrates the aftermath.

All four characters are well-drawn and strongly performed. Barkhordar is especially powerful as the patriarch trying to guide his daughters’ lives in a traditional way through the chaos of modern culture. (Barkhordar won a Jeff nomination for his portrayal of the minister of culture in Red Orchid’s “In a Garden” in 2013.) Jamshidi and Gandhi are excellent as two sisters with opposite personalities but mutual respect for their culture. Kenyon plays the serious Eli as a committed Muslim hoping to change society.

This is the midwest premiere of “The Who and the What,” which was first performed last year at Lincoln Center. The production is performed in two acts with an epilogue and runs two hours with one intermission.

The wide Victory Garden mainstage enables Scott Davis’ set design to set several different scenes economically, each one highlighted by Sarah Hughey’s lighting. A scrim across the back of the stage displays Arabic calligraphy and establishes the environment for the story.

This review was previously posted on

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Nancy is editor and publisher of Third Coast Review a Chicago arts and culture website, where she writes on theater, film, art and lit. She is a 2014 fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can find her personal writings on pop culture of all types at Nancy, recently retired after 30+ years in corporate marketing and PR, holds a B.J. from the University of Missouri and an M.A. in communications and design from Northern Illinois University. Follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. Author website: