Review: What Became of Us and the Cultural Divide Between Siblings

Shayan Lotfi’s brother-sister two-hander makes its world premiere at Atlantic Stage 2.

Rosalind Chao and BD Wong star in the world premiere of Shayan Lotfi’s What Became of Us, directed by Jennifer Chang, at Atlantic Stage 2.
(© Ahron R. Foster)

What does your life look like through the eyes of a sibling? For some of us (present company included), it’s a terrifying question. A brother or sister, especially one close in age, would have had a front row seat to the development of your personality — witness to every ill-conceived haircut and able to recount ancient humiliations in excruciating detail. Few people know you — the real you — better.

That seems to be the operating assumption behind Shayan Lotfi’s What Became of Us, now making its world premiere with Atlantic Theater Company. It’s about Q (Rosalind Chao) and Z (BD Wong). Q was very young when their parents moved from the old country, and Z was not yet born. Q helped her parents by working their corner store, while Z reaped the benefits of an being raised into an upwardly mobile family. Q remained a studious and obedient child, while Z explored the fringe of American counterculture. Q sacrificed her own dreams on the altar of filial piety, but Z opted to leave home and pursue happiness — and ended up becoming his own type of entrepreneur. After their parents die, they must decide whether they will continue to have a relationship, or whether a lifetime of resentment is too great an obstacle.

Lotfi presents this story through direct address, with Q and Z recounting their memories directly to the audience, but addressing each other. “You tried our mother’s eyeliner on in the bathroom with the door locked…You smoked a cigarette at the mall and set off the fire alarm. You marched in a protest against a foreign occupation happening not far from The Old Country,” Q says to us members of the jury, never looking at the accused.

And the defense responds, “You were accepted into a university, one of the fancy ones where the buildings are older than This Country, with a nearly-full scholarship. You listened quietly as our parents said it would be a betrayal to leave. You agreed to take a campus tour of the shitty school for commuter students in the next town over.”

Rosalind Chao and BD Wong star in the world premiere of Shayan Lotfi’s What Became of Us, directed by Jennifer Chang, at Atlantic Stage 2.
(© Ahron R. Foster)

I typically detest this style of theater, which so often feels like a negation of the dramatic form. But Lotfi’s text stealthily shifts direction so that speech at seamlessly transforms into speech with as this sibling relationship evolves. It tells its own story of how memories are both a source of conflict and communion.

Jennifer Chang’s simple and efficient production keeps our focus on the performers. Tanya Orellana’s set is a long block with two windows, which acts as both a bridge and a barrier as the performers rotate it throughout the 90-minute runtime. Reza Behjat’s precise lighting suggests both distance and intimacy. And costume designer Rodrigo Muñoz shows how the same cardigan can make someone look both young and old depending on how it is worn. Every design element contributes to the forward motion of the story, never drawing focus from the excellent performances of the two actors.

As the firstborn, Chao opens the play, introducing us to the gentle older sister whose lack of flamboyance shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of personality. As the play progresses, Chao subtly reveals Q’s desires, buried under layers of duty. One can easily see how she becomes an afterthought in the radiant (and occasionally radioactive) glow of her all-American brother. Z suspects a conspiracy of his immigrant family against him — and the rage and hurt of being the black sheep vibrates from Wong’s body. Why would they even move to this country if they wanted their children to behave exactly the same as in the old country? Isn’t this wayward son fulfilling his parents’ highest aspirations in the land of the free?

Lotfi has cleverly made his script vague enough (referring to “the old country,” but never saying which one) that it could apply to a variety of striver immigrant families — a proposition that will be tested during this run. On June 10, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Tony Shalhoub will step into the roles of Q and Z, transforming this play about East Asian immigrants into one about Middle Eastern immigrants. The words won’t change, but the actors will — and I suspect this will result in elements of Lotfi’s text resonating in different ways, making this thoughtful and heartfelt sibling drama well worth a revisit.

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What Became of Us

Final performance: June 29, 2024