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Muslim faith and modern romance considered in 'The Who & the What​'

The new Huntington Theatre production follows a young writer as she rediscovers her faith — and herself.
Actress Alia Peck will play Zarina in the Huntington's "The Who & the What"Nile Scott Shots/Nile Hawver

Zarina, a single 30-something Harvard grad, is living at home when her father decides to intervene by signing her up for a dating site. While this sounds like the plot of a promising rom-com, Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who & The What” is not quite that.

The Huntington Theatre’s latest production considers the modern and the traditional — of both religion and romance. The completion of Zarina’s book on women and Islam (also titled for the name of the play) forces her family, her father-picked suitor and herself to consider their relationship with the Muslim faith and its heritage in a contemporary-thinking society.

We chat with Chicago-based actress Alia Peck, who will play Zarina in the M.Bevin O’Gara-directed production, about her character’s self-actualization, the importance of representing modern Muslim society in the arts and why this play isn’t just another love story.

At the top of the play, where do we find Zarina?

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She’s at a time where she’s not aware of what she’s even doing anymore. She’s been cooking and cleaning for her family, putting them before herself. I think the trauma of her mother dying and a breakup with Ryan, her former partner of five years, put her in a place where she lacks identity. Through the whole play, you see Zarina slowly begin to rediscover herself; I think this play is a lot about self-actualization.

Do you think she’s particularly looking for love at this point?

Absolutely not, it’s not in her cards. Not anywhere in the vicinity.

So should we consider the romantic relationship she develops and that whole story line to be the b-side story of the play?

It comes very late in the play. Love is on the forefront and surprises her, but I think it’s more about how we’re constantly balancing and redefining the roles that love and faith and belief play in our lives.

How does Zarina’s relationship with her father affect the changes happening in her life?

It became very clear to me that there’s an archetype of the new and old generation [in the relationship between Zarina and her father]. It’s a love and trust for the older generation, but then a desire to create something new. It’s a loving, charming relationship, and it’s palpable that there’s so much love and solidarity in this family.

But you see over the course of the play that a whole slew of other feelings go along with claiming identity for the younger generation. I think for Americans, the universal thing is that we’ve taken ideas that we’ve inherited for our parents and our religious backgrounds, and researched and recreated them with the intent to carry them onto the next generation. It’s the evolution of thought and belief.

Do you consider the depiction of a modern, devout Muslim family to be important to the arts?

In my reading, the media often paints this general picture of Islam. [In this play] you can see the many different strengths and colors Americans come in who identify as Muslim. It gives a window into the history, stories and oral traditions of a religion that’s been distorted.

If you go:

April 31 to May 7
Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
527 Tremont St.
Tickets start at $20, huntingtontheatre.org

 
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