‘What Became of Us’ Review: A Soaring, Poetic Play You’ll Want to See Twice

Last week's performances of Shayan Lotfi's play were both a double feature—the same play twice, with different actors—and a revelation.

Rosalind Chao and BD Wong in What Became of Us. Ahron R. Foster

It’s a cliché to say, when offering a dissenting opinion of a work of art, that you watched an entirely different film/play/TV show/[insert form of art here]. Yet sometimes, the cliché is an indisputable matter of fact. I missed the chance to see Shayan Lotfi’s What Became of Us when it opened June 4th at Atlantic Theatre’s Atlantic Stage 2, when it was performed by Rosalind Chao and BD Wong, but finally had a chance to see it last week. Hindsight has made me hideously grateful for my habitual lateness. Critics invited to the opening week’s performances faulted the play for its “lulling quality” and “vague” performances—aspects that rarely revealed themselves in the show I saw. Or make that shows. 

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Unlike the roughly first tranche of performances beginning in mid-May, last week’s runs of What Became of Us were billed as a “exclusive double-feature event.” Two pairs of actors took turns performing the roles of a sister named Q and her younger sibling, Z, who reminisce about their past. The first 80 minutes were anchored by Shohreh Aghdashloo and Tony Shalhoub, both superb in their roles of Q and Z, respectively; after an intermission, Rosalind Chao and BD Wong assumed the same parts. Not everyone might inclined to sit through a cumulative three hours of performance, but the experience was well worth it, even as Aghdashloo and Shalhoub delivered more finely shaded performances than Chao and Wong. A double-feature is, on reflection, the proper way to see Lotfi’s soul-stirring show. On the day I saw the two plays (or is it one double-helixed play?), fellow audience members murmured to one another about how much they had missed in the first performance—a confession I readily sympathized with. 

Rosalind Chao in What Became of Us. Ahron R. Foster

The first words of the play are delivered by Q, about her parents. On Tanya Orellana’s bare stage, graced with a single prop in the form of a rectangular plinth, Q tells us that “they formed the first image of my remembered life.” Memories are the fuel the show runs on, but what’s happening is no simple feat of recollection. Rather, like characters in Faulkner’s novels, Q and Z, who joins her onstage after her preamble, seem to exhibit a form of hyperthymesia so that memories from dozens of years ago come back with athletic ease and acquire a vividness that makes them seem more real than the present moment. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud spatialized memory, imagining that “nothing that has once been formed can perish, that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances (when, for instance, regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to light.” The psychic past, he argued, was as richly sedimented as the successive phases of Rome. 

Q and Z need no therapist to help them uncork their memories, but Lotfi complicates the idea of disinterring the past by having his characters not remember—or deliberately elide—certain details: their full names, their precise country of origin, the name of their significant others. Q is born in “The Old Country,” signified as somewhere in the Global South, according to the script, and Z was born seven years later in “This Country,” located somewhere in the Global North. Instead of the name of the college where Q was accepted, we learn that it was “one of the fancy ones where the buildings are older than This Country.” The vagueness is intentional. It makes the play roomy enough to accommodate different kinds of backstories, and different actors inhabiting Q and Z will emphasize different chords. 

BD Wong in What Became of Us. Ahron R. Foster

The elisions are counterbalanced by a density of descriptive detail: Z remembers exactly where Q was when she got her first period (“while waiting in a bus shelter, next to a gruff man in a mobility scooter”) and Q remembers that her younger sibling used to try on “our mother’s eyeliner on in the bathroom with the door locked” and “marched in a protest against a foreign occupation happening not far from The Old Country.” There’s a soaring, poetic quality to the play, which frequently put me in mind of Joe Brainard’s acclaimed I Remember, an autobiographical work that stitched together a quilt of memories about his childhood, beginning with the refrain “I remember.” The twist here is that instead of leading with the vertical pronoun, the characters narrate their siblings’ lives in a relay of second-person declarative statements. We thus learn that after Q and Z’s parents move to “This Country,” Q became the “imminent third adult in the home,” helping to raise Z. She recalls that as a child, Z had “a swirl of hair that resembled a landing hurricane”—a trait they pass on to their son, referred to only as “The Golden Child.” Z tells us how Q, despite her acceptance to an Ivy League university, decides to enroll in an “apathetic, weary, crumbling school” and works at her parents’ corner store during weekends. She becomes a librarian while Z amasses credit card debt by going to culinary school to become a chef. During one of Z’s visits to their parents, they reveal that they are not “a man, and not a woman either, but something in between.” “You sat stone-faced as our mother laughed and our father cried,” they recall. The lack of response causes Z to break off contact with their parents—and with Q, for a time. (Though the script doesn’t specify the characters’ pronouns, in an email to me, Lotfi clarified that “while Z has an evolving relationship with their gender identity + expression over the course of the play [and grew up in an era with different terminologies], I still believe the proper pronouns from the vantage point of here and now would be they/them rather than he/him.”) 

Under Jennifer Chang’s exquisite direction, Aghdashloo and Shalhoub made excellent use of the stage. They circled each other without making eye contact—a feat of proprioception—until the last few minutes of the play. It was a quietly moving thing to witness. After a 15-minute intermission, wherein the audience was ushered to another room to enjoy some refreshments, Rosalind Chao and BD Wong took the stage. Wong’s Z cut a more boyish figure than Shalhoub’s; rather than directly secreting their orange into a jacket pocket, for instance, they tossed it into the air and refashioned their jacket as a cape. Chao was unfortunately not as assured in her line deliveries as Aghdashloo, and both Chao and Wong had a tendency to speed through their speeches. As a result, the second performance sometimes felt like an enucleated version of the first, which it merely annotated. There’s less room for surprise and subtlety in the second performance. When Aghdashloo’s Q talked about drinking “many green tea” with a writer she has just met, she suggestively italicized the word “many”; Chao’s delivery was flirtation-free. Similarly, when Chao’s Q praised her sibling for helping her revamp her house (“You offered to install new flooring and windows in exchange for use of the house twice a year, and I saved thousands in renovation costs”), she sounded oddly like a sponsored advertisement. Yet these quibbles aside, What Became of Us is powerful enough to work as an elixir on one’s memory, no matter which cast is performing. 

What Became of Us| 80 mins. One intermission. | Atlantic Theater Company | 330 West 20th Street | 646-328-9579 | Buy Tickets Here   

‘What Became of Us’ Review: A Soaring, Poetic Play You’ll Want to See Twice