E Pluribus Unum

THE HISTORY OF AMERICA IS THE HISTORY OF IMMIGRATION AND ASSIMILATION. Apart from Native Americans, every family in this country arrived here from someplace else. Every immigrant group that has come to America has played out these familial tensions in domestic tragicomedy, whether on stage, film, radio, or TV: the Irish, the Italians, East European Jews and Slavs, Chinese, Greeks, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, South Americans, and more recently Filipinos and South Asians. From the 1870s, when Ned Harrigan and Tony Hart invented the misadventures of a tenement-Irish social club called the Mulligan Guard, down to the inter-ethnic and intra-family disputes of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights, new arrivals have played out, from every conceivable angle, the story of their search for identity in their new homeland, “the melting pot where nothing melted,” as the Rabbi in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America describes it. Ayad Akhtar’s The Who & the What adds another tasty morsel to the American stew.

This domestic drama is populated by Afzal, a successful, widowed, Pakistani immigrant, who dotes on his American daughters and worries about their future. His elder daughter Zarina struggles to complete her novel, blocked partly by a broken heart and partly by the book’s potentially blasphemous content. His younger daughter Mahwish studies to be a nurse and lusts after her GRE tutor. Akhtar creates a complex web of conflicting ideas and wants, all of it supported by a deep love between the characters. In a talkback at the Huntington last season, Akhtar explained, “People are not consistent, situations are not consistent. What’s happing in the world is not unipolar and yet we yearn for the simplicity of a single narrative.” In all of Akhtar’s work, the ways that the characters work out how to be true to themselves and each other are always thorny.

Because the battle for identity always ends in a draw — you can’t go back to the old country and you can’t abandon your heritage — works that tackle it tend to be hardy perennials, spawning sequels or living on in multiple media forms. Harrigan and Hart produced 17 versions of the Mulligan Guard over a decade. Anne Nichols’s Abie’s Irish Rose, a 1922 comedy of ethnic feuding between Irish and Jewish neighbors, followed its original five-year run with two Broadway revivals, two film versions, and a radio series before evolving into the 1972 television sitcom “Bridget Loves Bernie.” The joy in revisiting these stories as they expand to include Americans of Latino, Asian, and Middle Eastern heritage is that they tell our own families’ stories refracted through another culture. Zarina and Mahwish are not the first women to have a meddling father. Nor is Afzal the first man to struggle with his daughters’ choices.

The great value of immigrant dramas is that they all pose the question, what is America? Is America the Enlightenment rationality of the Founding Fathers, the anything-goes anarchism of gun enthusiasts and libertarians, the theocratic rigidity of fundamentalists, the sheer materialist greed of capitalism, or simply an inexplicable polyglot confusion containing elements of them all? No wonder, with all these possible sources of tension, the immigrant family is an enduringly juicy theatrical subject. No wonder the younger generation perpetually feels adrift, while the older longs for a former homeland idealized out of all similarity to the land that’s really there now. Clifford Odets got it exactly right in Awake and Sing! when he made the grandfather retreat, not into a Russian or Russian-Jewish dream world, but into his prized recording of Enrico Caruso singing “O Paradiso” — an Italian tenor singing a French aria about a beautiful, exotic world that exists only in the romantic imagination. For all the laughs that assimilation drama often stirs up, its ultimate thrust is tragic: In this ever-evolving nation — where some children of immigrants now advocate building a wall to keep immigrants out — we may never fully know who we are.


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