Usman Ally | Performer of the week
Starring as an apostate Muslim lawyer whose denounced religion interferes with his career, Usman Ally gives an electrifying performance in American Theater Company's world premiere of Ayad Akhbar's Disgraced. Born in Swaziland and raised in various countries across southern Africa and Asia before coming to the U.S. in 2000, Ally is no stranger to living in areas of extreme racial and religious persecution. After the September 11th attacks, he saw public perception of Muslims and Middle Easterns in America undergo a radical shift, one that has been the catalyst for the actor's stunning performances in both the Jeff Award-winning The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and Disgraced. He spoke with us about his religious upbringing, the ways that the U.S. approaches issues of race and religion, and how he was able to get to the emotional extremes needed for the play's climactic moment (that we're not spoiling here).
Are you a religious person? Were you raised in a religious family?
I'm what I call "Muslim by name." What Ayad [Akhtar], our playwright, says is that I'm a "cultural Muslim," which means I was raised in a Muslim family that wasn't a practicing Muslim family. When I grew up, my parents identified as Muslim, therefore I did as well. When I was young, I would go to mosque on Eid, which is like our religious festival, but I didn't pray five times a day, I didn't do any of those things. A lot of the things that are considered some of the dogma of the religion, my parents had me do more out of a social responsibility. For instance, when I was 11 or 12, they had me learn Arabic and read the Quran, but only in Arabic, because that's what's expected of Muslims. So I read the book, but I didn't understand a word of what I was saying. And for them, once I was done reading it, their moral obligation was done. I certainly feel that I'm a spiritual person, whatever that might mean, and I have some kind of belief in some sort of higher power, and I do appreciate a lot of aspects of Islam, particularly Sufism and more spiritual aspects, but I don't practice. I find myself to be a poor representative of the idea of what a Muslim should be.
Did you have to do any extra research into Islam for the role or was a lot of it ingrained?
A lot of it is ingrained, and I think that's the thing about young Muslims, particularly people who are liberal Muslims. We grew up hearing all this stuff and we have an understanding of the religion that's pretty well informed. I didn't necessarily have to look into too much more. Also, because the character I'm playing is an apostate but he's pretty well informed, he has very logical reasons for feeling the way he does. Because it's so well written, you don't need to really look into it too much, because it all seems like a very well reasoned argument going forward. You tap into that instead. For me it was more about understanding why he feels the way he does, and making sure that truth is clear on stage. There are also people that question certain things said in the play. There's that section where I say in the Quran there's wife beating, but there are Muslims that will tell you "no, that's only in the English translation." There's room for argument and flexibility, but I had a good understanding of what Islam means to me.
Amir's work life is a big part of the story but we don't see much of it on stage. Did you spend time with Ayad and director Kimberly Senior creating that world and fleshing out the backstory?
It's really interesting you say that, because that was one of the changes this play underwent right until the last minute. Initially, that whole first sequence where I'm on the phone talking to one client, then another client, and then I'm speaking to a paralegal and then I call my boss—establishing how good Amir is at his job—that was written in three days before we opened. Because people needed to literally see that this guy is good at his job, to establish that he's a lawyer, and he's quick on his feet and can get things done and is willing to sacrifice himself for the firm. Because at the end of the call I say to my boss, "You can preserve the relationship with this client. You can make me the fall guy." He's ready to do whatever he can to help the firm get ahead. That was something we really worked on clarifying a lot towards the end of the rehearsal process. The play went through a lot of changes in general. They were throwing pages at me all the way up to the final minutes of the last preview. The day of opening I was still getting new lines. [Laughs.]
I did some research on my own, just understanding what it is to be a corporate lawyer as opposed to a public defender. Amir did both, he started off as a public defender and then moved into becoming a corporate lawyer. How often are those transitions made? What does it entail? Realizing that a corporate lawyer in mergers and acquisitions doesn't actually spend that much time in court at all. It's a lot more contractual stuff and working with clients rather than being in court. So all that was really important, just to establish the kind of person he is and what his desires are in life.
How did you work to get to the emotional level needed for the play's climax?
We had a really intensely provocative rehearsal schedule, especially toward the end of previews. Kimberly and the writer and the producers were all thinking that we need to build to that moment in an honest way, so there was a lot of argument about how it should be done. It's so important to me that the audience sees Amir as a sympathetic character, and that we're not condoning [his actions], but that you could understand that this man is so conflicted that he has completely given up who is to [try to] become something that he never will be. He's been identifying with this false self, everyone has turned on him and he has nothing left. Getting to that point is tough. I relate to Amir on a lot of levels, I have a lot of similar, conflicting feelings about being in the United States, being Pakistani, being a Muslim but not necessarily agreeing with what's happened with the religion. Getting to that point just required a lot of time and honest talk about it. There was a lot arguing and a lot tears shed. It requires a lot of the actor and the director and the playwright, and we all had to trust each other that we were going to make a truthful portrayal on stage.
You've lived all around the world—have you noticed anything specific in regards to how Americans view race and religion in comparison to people of other countries?
It's tough for me to say exactly, because the thing about the United States is that it's such a vastly large country. Depending on where you are, people have very different responses to ethnicity and race. I grew up in Southern Africa during apartheid, and so issues of race were very extreme when I was a young boy. My perspective might be a little skewed. I came to the United States in 2000, one year before 9/11, and for me, conversations about Islam changed dramatically after 9/11. Before 9/11, no one was having any conversations about Islam. When I got here, people couldn't point out Pakistan on a map. It's almost like, in a strange way, the idea of what it is to be a Muslim or a Pakistani was born in the consciousness of Americans after 9/11. We didn't exist, we were just there. We were in this country, but nobody really cared. We were almost an. And then after 9/11, it became this very misrepresented perspective of what it is to be a Muslim in the mainstream media.
In my opinion, people are really willing to have conversations about race. In the theater especially, conversations about race are often about black and white and sometimes Latino. If you are then from a different ethnic background—South Asian, Middle Eastern, or Asian—those conversations aren't being had in the public sphere as much as you would like. That's why this play is so important, because it talks about the interactions between a variety of people. We have a character who is Jewish, a white woman, a woman who is black, and an apostate Muslim Pakistani. I think it's important that conversations about race open up a bit more, because they're just not very inclusive. The only way you really hear people talk about Islam is on the news, and it's usually Fox or MSNBC, and those are very far-reaching perspectives. Whereas in other countries, people rather openly speak about ethnicity and diversity.
runs through February 26 at American Theatre Company, 1909 W Byron St (773-409-4125, atcweb.org). Ally is next slated to appear in Steppenwolf's Three Sisters this summer, adapted by Tracy Letts and featuring Ally's Disgraced co-star Alana Arenas. Read our review of Disgraced here.