By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Monika Jolly, who stars as Zarina in ArtsWest’s production of Ayad Ahktar’s play, “The Who & The What,” came by the role in a manner you don’t hear about every day. She created it.
“Funny enough,” Jolly said, “I actually originated the role of Zarina when ‘The Who & The What’ had its world premiere at [California’s] La Jolla Playhouse in 2014! I had also been asked to be a part of a few developmental readings of the play, as it was being worked on by Ayad in the year leading up to the eventual production.
“Once it had been announced as part of La Jolla Playhouse’s season, everyone in town knew that the play was being produced, and we all wanted to be a part of it. And obviously it was of particular interest to the female, South Asian actresses. It’s rare to have such well-written roles like this for a South Asian woman.”
This four-character play from Akhtar, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his earlier play “Disgraced,” features Jolly alongside Haley Alaji, as Zarina and Mahwish, a pair of Pakistani American sisters based in Atlanta, Ga., where their conservative Muslim father, Afzal (played by Abhijeet Rane), runs a taxi company.
Zarina, the brainier and more provocative of the two sisters, seems happy with the single life, intellectual pursuits, and tinkering with a novel — although she keeps her creative work private and refuses to discuss it with anyone, including her family. She discovers, much to her ire, that her father has set up a fake dating profile for her, and conducting over-the-computer interviews with eligible Muslim bachelors, on her “behalf.”
She reluctantly agrees to meet one of her father’s “choice picks.” However, she finds to her surprise that the young man makes her laugh, and even think. This is Eli (played by Andre Nelson), a Caucasian Muslim convert. She’ll pursue Eli, but with drastic unforeseen consequences.
The play’s director, Samip Raval, hails originally from Charlotte, N.C., and moved to Seattle after graduating from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
“This is my directing debut with ArtsWest,” explained Raval. “Mathew Wright (ArtsWest artistic director) had reached out to me about working on this play. He knew that I had previously acted in two productions of ‘Disgraced’… Working on another one of his plays felt very refreshing, and especially one that centers on a female character.
“I loved that this play is about a family that loves each other so much, and yet still has an entire world [of] learning, understanding each other. I was terrified — but that was probably the leading indicator that I needed to work on it.”
The action moves from a kitchen to a park bench to a restaurant, to a bedroom, and sometimes revisits a setting we’ve seen before. The audience sits on all four sides of the action, so the actors have the distinct challenge of communicating with their backs to a certain portion of the audience, at all times.
“The first job as a cast is to read the play,” commented Raval about working with his cast.
“It sounds simple, but [we] read the play over and over and over again. What are the characters saying and why do they use each word they have? What are they not saying? Then, what are they doing in the play? What are the actions they commit throughout the course of the story? These questions allow us to step back from our immediate judgments and simply look at the facts that the playwright has given us.
“And once we felt like we knew the story, we committed and played hard… [each cast member] to deepen their understanding of the relationships, and connecting with their acting partners on a deeper level each day.”
“I feel very close to who Zarina is,” concluded Jolly, “and the inherent struggles she is going through. I don’t want to say it was ‘easy’ to create the character, because it always takes work. But this time, it felt effortless, and with Samip’s guidance to always be specific and ‘go after what you want’ with clarity and intention, I found myself able to inhabit Zarina with grace.
“She is already a very well-written woman, and I just needed to trust in the writing, direction, and work of my fellow actors to allow her to become more fleshed out during each and every rehearsal.” ■
“The Who & The What” plays through Oct. 1 at ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., Seattle. For prices, showtimes, and other information, visit artswest.org/theatre-plays/the-who-the-what.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.