Usman Ally on identity politics in ATC's 'Disgraced'
“Being Muslim these days is like being public enemy number one,” says actor Usman Ally. “Our voices are not being heard.”
“In a way, it’s a dangerous play,” he says of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, which had its world premiere at American Theater Company last month. At a dinner party, every imaginable prejudice gets laid on the table by corporate lawyer Amir (played by Ally), his blond American wife, a Jewish gallery owner, and his African-American wife, also a lawyer. But that danger, Ally says, “has brought us as a cast together.”
An ATC ensemble member, Ally has experienced some irrational reactions to earlier performances as a Muslim. He played an Indian-American character, VP, in Victory Gardens’ The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity—another “incendiary” show, he says, that toured to New York and L.A.
“Audience members would come up to me afterwards and call me a terrorist—even though I was playing a spoof of a terrorist! Because my character was multilingual, they’d tell me, ‘I think everyone in this country should be speaking English.’ They directed their political outrage at me.”
Muslims’ reactions after seeing Disgraced, Ally says, have varied a lot. “Some were like, ‘This is so important that this play is being done, because Muslims need to think about this sort of stuff, too.’ Others were just outraged because they thought it would fuel more of the negative stereotyping of Muslims in this country.”
A violent scene between Amir and his wife sparked a lot of conversation among the cast, playwright Akhtar, and director Kimberly Senior--Ally says it went through 17 iterations. Though originally scripted to take place onstage, it’s now a noisy offstage altercation, a decision Ally approves of partly because it’s “more gut-wrenching to imagine what’s going on.”
“My biggest fear, to be honest,” he says, “was that if the audience sees a large, dark-skinned man beating a small white woman, they will turn on him.” Everyone involved in Disgraced has had to tread a fine line between acknowledging the validity of ethnic stereotypes—and reinforcing them.
“There is anti-Semitism in the Muslim community,” says Ally. “Everything that Amir says—whether it’s about his mother, who tells him he’ll end up with a Jewish girl ‘over my dead body,’ or whether he’s saying white women are whores—those ideas are not pervasive, but it’s there. I heard it growing up, not from my parents but from people in the community. [Playwright] Ayad heard it as well.”
Ally, 29, was raised in a Muslim family originally from Pakistan, where he lived for about a year when he was 10. But he was born in Swaziland and grew up in Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania. After living in Africa for 18 years, Ally moved to the States to attend college, then got an MFA in theater. “Especially in our culture and community,” he says, “it was like, ‘You’re going all the way to America so you can sing and dance?’”
Ally says his parents come from “a very, very humble background.” His mother’s family “had to leave everything behind when they were forced from their homes” after the India/Pakistan partition. His father was raised in a small, impoverished village outside Islamabad but eventually got a master’s degree in economics and became, Ally says, “involved in trade between African countries—textiles and things of that sort.”
Like his character, Ally is married to a white American. “It was neither of our intentions to fall in love,” he says. “But we did. And people will project certain ideas onto us—we have to battle that quite a bit.”
“I always identified as a Muslim as a child and as a young adult. But practicing the dogma of religion was never something that my parents enforced on us. They said, ‘You are Muslim—that means that you should be good to people.’” He learned Arabic well enough to read the Koran but never understood what he was saying. During Ramadan, he’d sometimes fast, sometimes not.
Also like his character, Ally has clearly learned to negotiate cultures of all kinds. “I believe that my identity is porous,” he says. “I should be willing to allow my identity to shift and change based on what I experience in my life. But it’s all rooted in who I was. I start off from where I was, and I work from there.”
“But Amir has literally divorced himself from who he was, and it’s all brand-new. It’s based in nothing. He’s not rooted in anything. He has to whitewash himself in a way. Ayad very succinctly says that the play is about a man identifying with a false sense of self.”
“Identity is a very American issue—understanding who you are and where you fit in this massive jigsaw puzzle.”