Alaudin Ullah grew up as your typical New York City kid—Yankees, Knicks, hip-hop. George Carlin inspired him to get into comedy, and he moved to Los Angeles to try and make it. In the post-9/11 environment, he soon discovered that “typical” roles were not available to him: he was always asked to audition for the role of a terrorist or a taxi driver. So he decided to lean into the culture of his parents that he had rejected, who were Bengali Muslim immigrants. Among his new pursuits, he collaborated with Vivek Bald on an upcoming documentary, called “Bengali Harlem,” which led him to try and understand his father’s life, struggles and triumphs.
When I heard that Writers Theatre is programming his solo drama “Dishwasher Dreams,” as its return to live theater—and its first show since its founder, Michael Halberstam, resigned this summer under a lingering cloud of allegations of backstage misbehavior—I was intrigued. Glencoe is not exactly known as a multicultural hot spot but here it is, putting on a South Asian Muslim show at Christmastime. Add to this mix the director Chay Yew, the well-regarded artistic director of Victory Gardens who exited that role in 2020 only to see the aftermath of his departure mishandled in a very public way. We had lots to talk about.
I met with Ullah and Yew in the spectacular Studio Gang-designed Writers Theatre building after a recent rehearsal. This is an edited version of our fascinating conversation about family, immigration and the American dream.
Alaudin: I was a really young comedian, so when I went out to Hollywood, I was very impressionable, and you know, being from New York, Los Angeles is a real culture shock. You have to have a car. I just felt so alone in California. I felt like a foreigner. It was like an epiphany. I was saying to myself, if I feel lost in Los Angeles, at least I can speak the language; I can navigate. What must it have felt like to be a foreigner, years ago in New York, without knowing how to survive?
I kept on saying to casting directors, Muslims don’t talk like this. I was reading for terrorists and cab drivers. And it was ironic because I had rejected my culture. I was from the streets of New York. I had no affinity for Bengali culture. I was so disconnected from my parents. Yet, what was happening was I always was going up for auditions to play the stereotypical Bengali character, or Indian character. All I was doing was impressions of my father. In auditions, I kept on saying, “No one talks like this. Do you know any Muslims?” And a really well-known director was like, “Well, maybe you should write it.”
The thing is, I grew up in Spanish Harlem. So, being Muslim, being Bangladeshi, I felt like a freak. I was constantly getting bullied; I was constantly getting teased. I didn’t feel like I belonged. I used to make the joke, I said, “You know, being Bangladeshi Muslim in Spanish Harlem is like being the only Amish guy at a rap concert.” My mother was wearing a sari; my father was traditional. They were fresh off the boat, and they didn’t care about assimilating. They stayed Bangladeshi until they died.
I’m laughing about it now, because as a little kid, I felt embarrassed by that. I would go on field trips, and when my mother would come with our class on field trips, I felt ashamed that they were like, “Why is your mother wearing a curtain?” I was the only one in our community, our neighborhood, that had a Bengali mother. I had no preparation for that shock of feeling like an outsider.
I felt the only place I belonged was in sports and arts. It was the only place I felt I could really be myself. But more so in the arts, because it embraced the outsider. And being a comedian, I had met friends, fellow comedians who felt like freaks, too. When I saw George Carlin on stage, I said, that’s what I wanna do. Like that’s the voice of the voiceless.
I always made this joke: “I have this problem; it’s called integrity.” I wasn’t willing to play those parts so that my career could move further along. I felt like, at that time, I didn’t have any allies; I didn’t have any champions in the room with me; I didn’t have an agent; I didn’t have a manager. Without giving out names, the ones that did manage me, they were saying, “Just do this.” And I just felt that, because my parents raised me a particular way—that’s the irony, here I was, rebelling against my parents, and I had to make the hard decision: do I want to play a Muslim that my father would be ashamed of? And even though I’m not devout, I just felt like I had a responsibility. I would tell the agents and the managers, if you’re Jewish, or you’re Italian, you wouldn’t want to do that for your people. Why would you ask me to do that? The ultimate irony is, here I am, defending Muslims, and I’m about as Muslim as Pee-wee Herman.
Chay: I think being an immigrant to this country, I really identify with the parents’ struggle. And definitely in terms of looking at one’s parents, one part of you saying, they are from the old world, and this is me in a new world. And I can run faster than they ever will. So, the tension between immigrants and the children of immigrants has always had a special place for me.
At some point, we realize that no matter how American you wanna be, you can’t be. So, at some point, you want to go back and figure out who you really are. The sojourn back to one’s self and culture. So, this play figures very largely about how Alaudin wants to become American, and the American performer, only to realize who he really is, ultimately, is the best of these two worlds.
Alaudin: Lisa Ling has a new show out on HBO Max. It’s all about the history of Asian restaurants in America. They’re doing a segment on Indian restaurants, and my father had one of the first [Indian] restaurants in New York. So, there’s a segment about me, talking about my dad and how he–which is also in our show—how he came up with the restaurant. My father was so proud of being Bengali, he felt that other restaurant owners were using the word India as a marketing thing. My father was like, I’m going to name my restaurant Bengal Garden. So, my father said, “I’m Bengali, and I’m proud to be Bengali.” That’s why this is so weird, because I used to tell my father, “I’m from New York. I’m a Knicks fan; I’m a Yankee fan.” My father was like, “No, you’re Bengali.” I rejected that.
It was on 46th and 8th Avenue. And here’s the connection. George Carlin told me, “Don’t worry about the showcase clubs. Just create your own show.” That in the sixties, they were just creating their own shows in coffee clubs and whatnot. And they would just get stage time and hustle. I was like, okay, great. Now, I’m outta high school. I don’t know how to book a show. There was a club on 46th Street and 8th Avenue called Don’t Tell Mama. It was a gay cabaret club, but right across the street was where my father’s restaurant was.
These are all the things that made me have a deeper appreciation for my parents, because I didn’t know any of this stuff. I just thought my father got on a jet and came here. My uncle said, “No, we came here on a boat. We were undocumented.” And this is how much of a dummy I am, they said, “Well, we weren’t welcome.” I’m like, yeah, whatever. When I found out about the Chinese Exclusion Act, I was like, wait a minute. Time out. There was a law that said you weren’t welcome here?
Chay: But the beautiful thing, too, is one of the interesting things about American narratives, the immigration trope is very unique to our storytelling. Whether it’s literature, or music or plays. And since the beginning—well, in a way, we’re all immigrants, as we all say. And it’s actually built on the backs of immigrants. The irony is that it’s always been the same story. And all of us feel like, in the end, most immigrant parents who come to this country, didn’t come to this country for themselves, they come here for the children, so that you’ll get a better life. And the irony, of course is, we see the parents as obstacles to us being an American.
Alaudin: My mom always wanted me to have the name Alaudin, but you know, Hollywood kind of changed it to Aladdin. But the correct pronunciation is AL-OW-DEEN, which means servant of Allah, nobility of faith.
And I’m like really? Okay. The thing is, there are some immigrants, you know, we joked about this—they’ll be like Chinese, and then we’ll be like Johnny Cho. My parents are like, no. You’re going to have a Muslim name. I feel like Bengalis, they hold on so much to their culture, and then, you know, my father was a Sufi Muslim, he believed in like Tagore and they get emotional when they hear Bengali poetry. And father would give me these lectures like, “You know, there was a war so that in our country you could speak Bangla, and you don’t want to speak Bangla.” I’m like, “Yeah, Pop, can I go play a game of basketball now?” I was so Americanized.
So, you have all of these things that my father went through on the ship; how he was—the weather, the working conditions on those boats was slavery. And the fact that they came to America and left that oppression, like, they never talked about that. Never. I didn’t know that my father worked on a boat, shoveling coal and all this stuff. I had no clue. And then when I went to Bangladesh, they told me the chores that my father had to do. He basically told my grandfather, “I don’t want to wake up at five in the morning and be a farmer.” I feel like my father sounded like me. And they were saying, “Yeah, your father was really rebellious. He was against his father. He was totally radical.” He said, “I’m going to go to America and live a better life.” I said, “You talking about my father?”
Chay: You give things up because you think that there’s going to be something here. And sometimes what you learn is, you are never going to get what you completely want, but then, this is home. There are very few places in the world where you can actually do that. And even though I do know that it’s a very complicated thing about this country and opening up of one’s borders, and how to figure out immigration, it’s always been. I think we saw America in an interesting sort of way through literature. Through books and novels and film, probably most of all, and music. And we say, this is how I can be. I can be free here. Which is very interesting. But once you realize, you’ve come to the border, you can’t get in. Or once you made it through the border, you realize, like when I was younger, I’m going to come to this country because you know, this country treats women very fairly. Look. You see Mary Tyler Moore. She’s a liberated woman. And then you realize they’re not getting paid the way that men are getting paid, and they’re still passing laws against the reproductive organs. So, the idea of what’s in the thought, which is ultimately the American mythology of the dream, and how you parlay that to American reality is very interesting.
Alaudin: Yeah. I think that’s kind of like what we’re discovering in this play. It’s like, I really thought I had an idea of what being a comedian, going out to Hollywood was, and living that dream. And then the reality was different. I think my father also felt the same way. “Well, when I come to America, the street’s paved with gold, and there’s opportunity.” And my father was watching Marlon Brando and Kirk Douglas. “That’s the America that I want to be a part of.” But when he came here, it was a different reality. I think it’s almost about, what is the reality of America, versus this sort of myth of America.
Chay: And what’s really interesting, too, is if you study it a little bit more, the dream doesn’t apply to immigrants coming to America. It’s now global. You go to any corner of Asia, Europe or Africa, the icon of the American Dream is synonymous with their own kind of dream. That you actually can have all these things. So, it’s been imported. The idea of the American Dream is imported around the world. I think it’s through storytelling, and sometimes, the more truthful it is, it is more interesting than the Marlon Brandos, because in the end, the reason that Marlon Brando gets the girls is because he’s Marlon Brando. He’s not me. He’s not his father.