Actress Turna Mete on Ayad Akhtar’s The Who & the What at the Huntington
Bevin O’Gara is one of my favorite directors in Boston. What has it been like working with her?
She has been a complete gift, and I even feel like the word gift is minimizing what she brings to the table. I immediately felt a connection with her—a groundedness of huge intellect and intelligence and respect for the work, for her own work as a director, and as well as for mine as the actor in the room, and that respect, connection, has continued in this process.
The play’s subject matter is hugely relevant and provocative. What kind of conversations have you guys had about that throughout the process?
We’re knowledgeable about, as you said, the provocative nature of this play, at this time, and the temperature of the country as a whole. For us, we’re honoring these people; we’re honoring the family and the connection. A part of this story is very much the Islamic faith. So there is a—not sensitivity, necessarily, but there is certainly an honoring. We don’t want to ostracize a single person. It’s being as authentic and honest in this story where we are characters of this faith in this set of circumstances in America. It deals with the theme of faith, of what we are faithful to as individuals, and that’s across the board. Our audience, everybody’s included in that questioning. What are the things you’re faithful to? It’s not just a play about religion. It’s a play about faith, which is a large, beautiful umbrella that I think everybody can relate to.
The complicated relationships within the family really could be happening in any house in the world.
Exactly. As much as this play is based around a conflict of views of religion, people will come and recognize the truth of what it’s like to see a father and a daughter who love each other, or father and daughter in conflict. And there’s just so much beautiful, honest work happening, it breaks my heart, sometimes. There’s something so beautiful that can happen between family members.
In the play, your sister, Zarina, is working on a book that humanizes the prophet. This does not go over well with your father.
Yes. To humanize the prophet is something that is not done within this religion, and certainly not within the culture. When her father reads this manuscript, it’s beyond just the humanization of it—he sees the sexualization and the display of Muhammad as a man more so than hearing direct things from God. What that represents for Afzal, our father, is a complete clash of culture. It’s a breaking of everything that he grew up believing, knowing, and teaching us. He can’t understand it. For my character, it manifests itself in the shock of trying to understand how she could do this and how she could do that to our father.
When Disgraced first came out, some people were outraged and very outspoken about the dangerous notions that they thought the play put forth. Are you aware of any similar type of reaction to this play?
I am not aware of any, factually. However, reading it, I could posit that people would perhaps take umbrage with it, for varying reasons. We had two consultants come in, first-generation Muslim Americans, and they were wonderful. They had their own interesting reactions to this play, because honestly, depending on how this story is treated, I could see how it could completely do a disservice and be a blanket, completely offensive stereotype, but that’s not in the script, if you’re paying attention. Are you aware of any? It’s different than Disgraced.
No, I’m not. And yes, Disgraced is a much more aggressive play.
As you said, it’s a story about a family. It’s very clearly about the dynamic of one household that could be representative of many things. I don’t think it’s offensive, but it certainly is thought provoking. What I hope for the audiences of this production is that they’re going to sit there; they’re going to view this play and have various opinions about it. And then a couple hours afterward, something else will hit them about it, and then 20 minutes after that, another thing will hit them about it. I have a feeling that’s going to happen quite a bit.
Will you be participating in any of the post-show talkbacks?
Yes, we have a few that we will be a part of, and then there are post-show discussions that the theater holds. They’re going to have to hold me back from going to every single one because I’m so fascinated by what the other viewpoint is. It’s a joy for me, as an actor, to be able to go out afterwards and hear what people say. I might just hide in the wings, though, so people can be honest. [laughs]
You mentioned that two consultants came in. What is the most interesting thing that you took from that meeting?
The young woman that came in, she said that she goes to the mosque when she feels like she needs a hug. Even if you don’t know the person next to you, you are there, you are communing with your God, and you have this shared experience. There’s a magic to that. No matter how strictly you abide by the tenets of any faith, it is the idea that you have a place of worship where you are welcome. Especially in the Islamic faith, there’s not a huge ceremony to convert. You have to believe in your heart and say a phrase, and that’s it, you’re welcomed, because it’s a safe space. That’s so much of what we do, as actors and people in theater, and people who attend theater. Why are we going? We’re going because we have an impulse, an innate human impulse to share our stories or to witness other people’s stories. It’s a beautiful thing that can bring us together as a collective. A continuation of storytelling, whether it’s in a mosque or in a theater. That’s what we’re doing.
THE WHO & THE WHAT. RUNS 3.31–5.7 AT HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. HUNTINGTONTHEATRE.ORG
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FUNNY & HEARTBREAKING NEW PLAY
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THRILLING PULITZER WINNER
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STEVE MCQUEEN’S ASHES
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Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.