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Wednesday 6 February 2019

The Who and the What, play by Ayad Akhtar translated from English into German by Barbara Christ, Akademietheater Wien, 7* out of 10

Ayad Akhtar’s comedy/drama is watchable, entertaining and raises important issues of growing up in different and especially since 9/11 often conflicting emotions concerning living in America, as an American of South East Asian/Muslim heritage, in the first and second generation. But faced with an all-white cast I asked myself: are there no German-speaking competent actors of Southeast Asian extraction? If so, it is high time for something to be done about this by theatre schools in Europe's German-speaking countries.

Atlanta, Georgia, USA 2010. Afzal (Peter Simonischek) originally from Pakistan is a widower and successful owner a local taxicab company. He has two grown-up daughters, who he brought up in a modern interpretation of his traditional Muslim faith. The elder one Zarina (Aenne Schwarz) is a writer who is respectful yet interested in exploring deeper questions of faith and culture. Her sister Mahwish (Irina Sulaver) is prepared to make painful compromises to maintain outside appearances of following her faith while being attracted to leading a modern life without the religious and cultural restrictions of her Pakistani ancestry. Mahwish has presumably chosen a high school sweetheart from her own cultural group as her future husband. For Zarina, Afzal starts a search for a partner on the internet site As Afzal, Zarina and Mahwish each try to reconcile modern American life and the traditions of the Pakistani Muslim heritage in their own way, serious conflicts arise. Will the love and respect they have for each hold up in the face of the choices they need to make in their professional, personal and spiritual lives.

Ayad Akhtar’s comedy/drama raises important issues of growing up with different and especially since 9/11 often conflicting cultures and emotions. It is about living in the US, as an American of South East Asian/Muslim heritage, in the first and second generations. It also touches on questions concerning second-generation Pakistani Muslim American women. The play is written by a man, so given this limitation, it does what it can to portray the dilemmas from the perspective of the female protagonists. Akhtar won the Pulitzer Prize with his first more edgy and dark play Disgraced which deals with similar subjects from different perspectives. The German translation of the play by Barbara Christ is good, although I was unable to divine why Ms. Christ did not translate the title of the play. Perhaps the money of the organisation commissioning the play ran out just when she was about to deal with the play’s title? European Film Award Best Actor Winner Simonischek (for his role in the Oscar-nominated film Toni Erdmann) leads a competent cast. Felix Prader’s direction is straightforward and clear.

It takes some adjusting to watch a modern American play in German translation, but it is not too much of an effort. My problem is with white actors (thankfully not black- or brown-face though) playing the roles of people of South East Asian/origin. Are there no German-speaking competent actors of Southeast Asian extraction, i.e. Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi etc.? A young woman in the audience raised this issue with her parents after the play and made the point that it was said that she was the only person in the audience who even noticed or cared. This was not quite correct, as there were at least two of us, but I believe she had a point. The answer by her parents that the public would not accept anyone but the best actors in what is being performed by a cast of the famous Burgtheater and that would today exclude German-speaking actors of colour is not a satisfactory one. It is time that the German-speaking theatre finds young people of all colours and backgrounds to train. After all, metropolitan areas in Germany, Austria and the German-speaking part of Switzerland have become very diverse. I can see and hear Viennese dialect spoken by people of all backgrounds and colours every day.

In summary, The Who and the What at the Burgtheater’s Akademietheater in Vienna is watchable and entertaining but left me with questions and mixed feelings about the production.

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