Usman Ally knows what he is not. He’s not the cowering, terrified, heavily-accented immigrant that TV producers and directors try to get him to play. He’s not an evil terrorist, like the ones Jack Bauer hunts down on the television show “24.”
Ally is a human Rubik’s Cube of global and cultural influences. A Pakistani national who was born and raised in southern and eastern Africa, Ally came to the United States in 2000 when he was 18. “–˜Are you Indian? Are you Pakistani? Are you Arab?'” Ally recalls people asking when he arrived. “I’ve come to a place where I accept who I am, just as an artist.”
Ally’s search for his identity and struggle against media-imposed identities flow into the words of his hip-hop poetry. This year, the 26-yearold Chicago-based actor, poet and hip-hop theater artist stars in “American Ethnic,” a show addressing the representation of race and gender in the media.
Presented by the Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, the production is a collaboration between Ally and two other spoken word artists, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai and Idris Goodwin. All three are minorities. All three have Chicago connections. And all three have something to say about race, identity and the media’s attempt to frame both. The show runs March 12 to 29 at the Greenhouse Theater Center.
Between drafts and deadlines, Ally sat down with The Chicago Reporter to discuss his upcoming performance. He shared how childhood memories of apartheid in Africa shaped his identity, how racism almost cost him his life and how he deals with the moral dilemmas that come with being an actor of color.
The show is about the media’s perpetuation of stereotypes. What are these stereotypes?
There’s a creation point for why people are perceived a particular way in the media. Black people for the longest time had all these subservient roles because the creation point was from slavery, and everything was perpetuated from there.
For me, I think people of my skin color or my background–” we’ve always been in the gray. There’s been a lack of representation. There’s been no representation of us in the media. After 9/11, there is this huge misrepresentation, and that’s the creation point. So 9/11 is the birth of all this misrepresentation.
How does your ethnicity affect your work?
I’ve been in auditions for TV shows like “The Beast” that are on television right now, and it’s this continuous thing where I’ll only be called in to be a terrorist or someone who’s lurking in the shadows. Or if they’re not lurking in the shadows, they’re a terrified immigrant who seems very uneducated, even though just because you’re an immigrant doesn’t mean you’re uneducated, right?
The person who’s producing or directing, they think they have more authenticity in telling me what it is to be what I am, to be my ethnicity. Often it’s racial, ethnic stereotyping. They’re coming at you from a position of status, and because of that status you have to listen to them, even though they might be incorrect.
I’ve been asked to do things like make something seem more Indian, or make it seem more Arab, when I am Pakistani, and this is the authentic article right here that you’re looking at.
Why is this something you care about?
I think it’s just the way I grew up. I grew up in southern Africa during apartheid, so we were very, very aware, even living in neighboring countries, of racism and institutional, organized structured racism. [It was] a system of government where a very small minority of white people controlled everything and everybody else was treated like dirt. So I just grew up idolizing people like Nelson Mandela, and people like Steve Biko, and, in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto. These were people who all came from positions of disempowerment and were fighting to empower their communities. So I grew up knowing that this was what was important in life.
Are there personal experiences of racism that inform your work?
I always had an awareness and consciousness about race relations, given where I was from. In the States, after 9/11, I had everything ranging from verbal confrontations, people driving by and throwing eggs and calling me Osama [bin Laden].
The most profound thing that happened was that I was the victim of a drive-by shooting. Someone who was badgering me for a while took it to another level. It was definitely a situation in which I’d been accosted time and time again by a particular individual, a white guy who I was in college with. It started off as him yelling things at me. Then it became physical confrontations. It seemed to me like a sequence of events.
If I did a show, some of the stuff in the show was socially and politically aware, and there would be heckling from the back of audience, racial epithets. I’d get menacing notes and things of that nature which had to do with my ethnic background, and there was no doubt in my mind that he was behind it. As weeks passed, it escalated. The climactic point for me was when he drove by one day while I was with a friend of mine and opened fire on us.
Some people may say, you never know, maybe it’s a joke or something. But to me it’s not a joke to point a gun at somebody. For me it was a hate crime because at the end of day, it creates extreme fear and paranoia.
What is the show trying to accomplish?
It’s simply creating voice. This is an opportunity to create a voice that is perhaps unheard. I look and I say, –˜That’s me being misrepresented on the screen. And that’s a huge misrepresentation.’
So I’m just putting that out there.
We’re also trying to reach a wide variety of audiences. We want to take this to schools, so that people who don’t necessarily come to the theater will come to the theater. So we go to those hip-hop communities and say, –˜Come to the theater.’ But also we go to theater communities and say, –˜This is hip-hop theater, and this is a valid theater art form.’ So it’s an opportunity to try to bring a wide variety of people together into the same room and talk.
Hip-hop theater may not be a familiar genre for theatergoers. What should they expect?
It’s not just a slam poetry show. It’s not just, I go up on the mic, I do a piece, he goes up on the mic, he does his piece. There’s definitely going to be a storyline to it, almost. There’s going to be a way that the pieces are going to merge over each other.
After every show, we have a post-show discussion as well, with someone who is involved in our civic community–”whether it’s a professor or someone from the [American Civil Liberties Union]–”so the audience can then become part of the discussion with the artists and the person who’s mediating.
With President [Barack] Obama now in power, we thought it would be an interesting time to have this conversation. Especially in a city like Chicago, which is so diverse, yet so segregated. So we just wanted to have the opportunity to create some discourse and dialogue and see who would go along with it.
What do you hope the audience will take away from the show?
There needs to be more discourse. People need to talk about it. If people come, see the show, and this creates discourse, that’s great. If I’m sitting next to someone 20, 30 years older than me, and if we’re discussing the show, and they say something I believe, I wouldn’t have thought that. It helps people find commonality. If it opens people’s minds, then that’s great. But there’s only so much we can do about creating action. That’s up to the individual.
With President Obama in power, do you have hope for the future of race relations?
I think white people are OK talking about racism now. Idris and I were talking about that, how now that Barack Obama’s in power, people will come up to you in the grocery store wanting to talk about race.
I’m not somebody who says, –˜Oh, this is going to improve race relations so much.’ I personally think he’s got a lot of work to do, and I’m more curious about his foreign policy. I lived in Kenya, and he’s half Kenyan, so there’s pride in seeing an Obama up there.
But the other day I saw this woman on MSNBC saying –˜Racism is over now. We live in a post-racial world.’ What the hell does that mean? The same things happening before Barack Obama are still happening now. So I don’t agree with that at all. But I’m hopeful. Man, I hope he can fix this mess.