Every first-generation person has a story of integrating the ways of the old country, or of their ancestral region like the American South. It is how identities are built and a part of the roadmap for success. Dishwasher Dreams is written and performed by standup comedian Alaudin Ullah. It is a robust and vivid remembrance of growing up as the son of Bengali immigrants in New York’s Spanish Harlem. Ullah is the lone speaking presence on the stage accompanied by percussionist Avirodh Sharma on the tabla. Sharma’s skill adds sonic warmth and dramatic punctuation to Ullah’s stage presence. A gorgeously layered opening song showcases the full range of the tabla. The music enhances the flavor of this immigrant story and is integral to the telling.
Ullah is a warm and engaging presence but his comic timing is not in rhythm with the more somber parts of the story. His movement and physicality comes off as stiff and shows that dramatic acting is not in his wheelhouse. The story is his, but it may have been portrayed better by a different actor for the flashbacks to the family’s treatment in Bangladesh and his parent’s aging and decline. His emotion is real and heartfelt, but it is not a compelling performance. He repeats lines when he stumbles. In the hands of a more skilled dramatic actor, those transitions would have been smoother and improvised.
Some of the funniest parts of this play are when he is doing more comic reenactments, such as his Muslim mother scolding him to put the pork chop down while she is speaking to him. Ullah tells the story of meeting his hero George Carlin, who was a genius at pointing out the idiocy of institutions, mores, and traditions. Carlin advised Ullah to tell his truth and not try to pander to the “big shots” in show business. That advice gave Ullah the push to be himself instead of a mainstream American imitation. His stories of building a huge success with other comic legends in their salad days are fun and mesmerizing. The show goes off balance when he tells the stories of hardships and tragedy. Ullah gives a respectful and loving remembrance of his family but the performance lacks emotional impact.
Ullah shines in the comic scenes, especially when he is skewering mostly American ideas of what a Muslim is supposed to act like. Chay Yew’s direction and staging does not drive the rhythm of the story. The action should clip along to the expressive tabla music and it does not. The stage is bare but for one chair and the lighting is also harsh. Sparse expressionism does not match the colorful and rich history that Ullah relates over 90 minutes
Dishwasher Dreams is a beautiful story of the American Dream from the 1950s through the Millennium. Ullah’s love for the Yankees and the grit of New York City are highlights. There is a lot to be learned from his story about immigrants in America being lumped together as an underclass with Black and Brown Americans. There is also truthful insight to their own racism under the guise of the ethnic pride of which everyone is guilty. Dishwasher Dreams is an enjoyable evening but I give the show 2.5 stars because there is room for some tweaks and polish in the performance,.
Dishwasher Dreams runs through January 9 at Writers Theater, 325 Tudor Court in Glencoe. Tickets are available at www.writerstheatre.org
Guest author Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.
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