By Alejandra Enciso Guzmán
La Jolla Playhouse has opened its last production of the 2013-2014 season titled The Who & The What by author, playwright and screenwriter Ayad Akhtar.
The play had its first developmental reading February 2013, during the Playhouse’s inaugural DNA New Work Series, which entailed a six-week period of workshop productions and readings of new plays and musicals. “Yes, that is how this project started. Gabriel Greene, Director of New Play Development at the Playhouse, is in charge of new work series. It is this terrific opportunity for work that is in a very early stage to be heard out loud” explained The Who & The What director, Kimberly Senior.
San Diego Free Press had a chance to talk to the Chicago based freelance director, regarding this piece and how it came about, along with other projects in store for her in the near future. “The Who & The What was in a very early stage. We got a full day of rehearsal with professional actors and had an informal reading that evening where the public was invited. With that we were able to get some really good feedback on what was working and what was not,” Senior explained.
The plot revolves around the outspoken and brilliant Zarina, raised in a conservative Muslim family in Atlanta who routinely clashes with her traditional father and sister. “It is so important to engage the audience. It was so wonderful to see that a play that talks about something very specific manages to feel so universal at the same time. That reading felt very special. We knew then that we were on to something great.”
Despite what audiences may initially think about the plot, the play is a comedy. “It is loosely inspired by ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ by Shakespeare. The younger daughter wants to marry in the traditional sense and the oldest daughter is not ready to do so. The father conspires to marry off the oldest daughter and that is where the play begins.”
Zarina, the older sister, has an outlet: her recently completed book about women and Islam — which threatens to tear her family apart for good. “The dad creates an online dating profile for her daughter at ‘muslimlove.com’, which is very funny. In one scene, he screens one of the daughter’s dates at a coffee shop.”
This play will highly resonate with audiences across both California and Baja California because both places are destinations for people coming from various places to make a better life for themselves and their families. It reflects their desire to maintain their traditions while adopting new ones where they now reside.
Senior points out “This also talks about the inter-generational separation, especially about marriage and courtship. People are attempting to hold on to traditional values while trying to understand how to fit in a modern American culture. You can say it about Judaism or Christianity with their traditions that come from so very long ago, where there are rules and cultural ideas that come from a time and place that is not our own. How do we apply them in a world that has internet? Where people live differently? That is really the question the play is asking.”
Senior will keep busy after this engagement. She is scheduled to direct the second production of The Who & The What at the Lincoln Center in New York this spring. In regards to being a freelance director, she explained that it is a challenging job. “You are always sort of hustling for the next thing. That is how it works. But I work a lot with writers as I worked with Ayad. I also have relationships with theaters. It is a little bit like working paycheck to paycheck but I have been doing it for twenty years, I have been finding my rhythm.”
Why should audiences come and see The Who & The What? Senior explains “It is resonant about our own families and reflective of our own lives. It is an entertaining evening at the theater. You leave with really great questions. You leave with things to think about and talk about with the people that you love.”
The Who & The What will run at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre from February 11th to March 9th. Tickets start at $15 dollars. For more information regarding this and other plays please visit: www.lajollaplayhouse.org
Alejandra Enciso Guzmán is an arts consultant and reporter in both Tijuana and San Diego. @Riselah / @Riselaheng