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Middle Eastern Character Allows Middle Eastern Actor To ‘Tell Her Truth’ At The Rep

In the play The Who & The What and the novel American Dervish, Ayad Akhtar explores some of the challenges of being a Muslim in America.

The Who & The What — a family drama currently at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre — reveals the tensions that surface when Zarina, the daughter of a Pakistani immigrant named Afzal, writes a novel that challenges traditional notions about women and Islam. The play premiered in February at La Jolla Playhouse in Los Angeles and was also staged this year at Lincoln Center in New York. 

In the Rep's production, Afzal's other American-born daughter, Mahwish, is played by New York-based actor Kat Nejat. She answered a few questions about her role: 

This was the first time you’ve been cast as a Middle Eastern character. What has playing this role meant to you?

Until very recently, and especially coming from the musical theater realm, there have been few roles written for Middle Eastern actors, in particular Middle Eastern women. When I first read The Who and the What, playwright Ayad Akhtar’s brilliant yet very specific voice felt like it was speaking directly to me.

As a first-generation American — my parents immigrated to the United States from Iran in the late 1960s — I grew up in a very liberal, Americanized household where assimilation was key. On so many levels this play has allowed me to tell my truth, a truth I have not yet been able to tell — in such a specific way — in my career thus far.

Describe your character.

At first glance, Mahwish looks like any other typical American 25-year-old co-ed. She does yoga, hangs out in coffee bars, bickers with her older sister, and is definitely the “princess” of the family. Dig a little deeper, and you find a young woman who is very carefully, and perhaps unsuccessfully, navigating the waters of being Muslim in America in 2014. She manipulates her centuries-old faith in order to maintain her modern, Americanized, assimilated lifestyle.

What background or personal experiences do you share with Mahwish? 

One of my first notes I wrote in my script had to do with the universal truth that, on some level, we all just want to please our parents, that this need to please just never goes away. I have always felt a deep sense of responsibility to obey, which I think is the trait I share most with Mahwish. We both work very hard to stay within the parameters of what is deemed “correct” by our parents and still stay true to ourselves.

I also really latched on to the fact I truly understood Mahwish’s need to assimilate and appear as “homogenous” as possible. I grew up without any Middle Eastern friends, neighbors and peers, and my parents believed in assimilation. Homogeneity equaled acceptance in our New Jersey social order.

Honestly, I could go on and on: We both are the children of Middle Eastern immigrants, we both didn’t leave home for college or lived at home longer than many of our American peers, both are Muslim — though I am non-practicing. And while in real life I am the eldest daughter, I am still most definitely the “princess"!

In what ways is she different?

We differ in that Mahwish adds another layer to the aforementioned sense of responsibility as she also abides by the Muslim belief system. Though I am Muslim by heritage, my upbringing was more “spiritual” than religious insofar that I attended a Quaker grade school and a Catholic high school.

You’ve performed on Broadway, in roles such as Fernanda in West Side Story and Cleonice in Lysistrata Jones. Have you seen any changes in the casting process, or in the roles that you’re now offered?

I have been so lucky to have been cast as many different ethnicities and backgrounds in my career thus far. I feel incredibly fortunate for all of these opportunities and I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t want that to continue. An actor's job is to inhabit the character and bring truth to the story. This is what I do with every part, every audition. In this industry, so much depends on your “look” and I can “look” a lot of different ways, which has helped and hindered me at times. But, it is also important to again note that that until very recently, there have been few roles written for Middle Eastern actors, in particular Middle Eastern women. So when the opportunity arises for this very specific and pretty much unrepresented ethnic group to be cast, I want to be in that room.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as an actor?

I think the biggest challenge is the uncertainty of this industry. As I get older, my need for consistency increases as my career aspirations compete with my need for wanting more “grown up” things — have a family, own a home, etc. My husband and I are both actors and while we have both been so fortunate to have worked on some amazing projects — five Broadway shows, so far, in our collective careers — the ups and downs make it unnerving to think about the future. But as my parents always taught me: In America, and as a woman, you can have it all, so I just keep plugging away!

Kansas City Repertory Theatre presents 'The Who & The What' through November 16 at Copaken Stage, 13th and Walnut, Kansas City, Mo. 816-235-2700. 

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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