Silk Road Rising is doing something unique and exciting on the Chicago theater landscape. Per its website, Silk Road “tell[s] stories through primarily Asian American and Middle Eastern American lenses. In representing communities that intersect and overlap, we advance a polycultural worldview.” Although the mission is presented in this way as demographically specific, the company’s quality work appeals to all artistic cohorts.
My last Silk Road experience was back in 2011 with the Chicago premiere of David Hwang’s “Yellow Face.” Part memoir, part fiction, the production was consistent with the company’s brand: stories of relatable American culture intertwined with the global community and world history. To be part of a Silk Road audience is to be entertained — and educated. It’s never a bad thing when good work also leaves one better informed.
I had to view “Ultra American: A Patriot Act,” the one-man show from American Muslim comedian Azhar Usman to learn, for example, that there are less than 16 million Jews on the planet. This seemed impossible, especially to a native of Chicago where Jewish culture is prominent and rich. So I Googled it on the way home. Sure enough, 70 years after the Holocaust, population numbers of the beleaguered people have yet to regain pre-World War II levels.
I should have wept over this revelation but I was too busy laughing at Usman’s description of growing up in Skokie, attending so many bar mitzvahs that he became jealous of the “chosen” people. The man labeled “America’s Funniest Muslim” by CNN also manages to turn a life spent profiled by airport security and fellow passengers into a laugh riot.
“Ultra American” is “good, but not great,” as my companion for the evening accurately put it. But the periodic giggles and opportunity to understand how Muslims grapple with the double consciousness forced upon U.S. people of color? Well worth the reasonable $25 ticket price.
What keeps the production from being great is a phenomenon that Usman focuses upon at the end of his 80-minute set: “projection.” While sharing gallows humor vignettes about the life of a traveling comedian who matches the physical stereotype of a terrorist, Usman concludes that everyone’s story involves projecting our attitudes, prejudices and experiences on another. It’s a solid philosophical point.
The problem comes early in the show when the performer levels some tough accusations at white Middle America, which frankly he must. After all, this is the year in which Donald Trump rose to become the alt right, hate-filled standard bearer of the Republican Party. This did not occur overnight or in a vacuum and Usman could not reasonably be expected to avoid racism. It would be a dereliction of duty.
What’s interesting however is the number of times he directly addresses white audience members and tells them to “relax” or “laugh,” claiming to feel rising tension in the room. Ironically, this is an act of projection that reveals the performer’s own biases. It is he who appears to be uncomfortable indicting certain segments of Caucasian culture, when it must be clear that bigots of any kind are unlikely to purchase a ticket to his show. Moments of genuine community laughter were sometimes met with an abrupt end by a weird strain of defensiveness.
As the production runs through September 25, there is still time for Usman to refine his approach. Don’t anticipate controversy for the audience. Trust them to get there on their own, and laugh at the absurdity of it all.
“Ultra American: A Patriot Act” runs through September 25 at the Chicago Temple, 77 W Washington Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-857-1234, ext. 201, or visit the Ultra American website.