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1000 Playwright Interviews The first interview I posted was on June 3, 2009.  It was Jimmy Comtois.  I decided I would start interview...

Nov 14, 2018

I Interview Playwrights Part 1017: Aladdin Ullah

Aladdin Ullah

Hometown: New York City

Current Town: New York City

Q:  Tell me about Dishwasher Dreams.

A:  It was developed at the Public Theater while I was a member of the Inaugural Emerging Writers Group. Man I really loved that group. Some super talented writers, talented artists were in that group- Ethan Lipton, Radha Blank, Raul Castillo and quite a few more. A little before that time, I was really frustrated about 15 years ago being a comedian. I was a bit burned out, comedy can be grueling. I was tired of the grind and constantly auditioning for stereotypical roles. So I saw Lackawaana Blues by Ruben Santiago Hudson and it was life altering. I cried in the lobby of the Public Theater because it was so moving, so real, I felt like a voyeur watching the humanity of that play along with the blues guitar scoring the scenes. Some solo shows are just a showcase for the actor with no story but Ruben had such a moving story. It inspired me to write my solo play Dishwasher Dreams with an amazing Tabla Player- Avi Sharma. 

The play is about me preparing to audition for the role of a Muslim terrorist as I reminisce about my dad arriving from Bangladesh to land in Spanish Harlem during the 1940's in pursuit of the American Dream. I wanted to do something original with music that was both hilarious and moving. There weren't a lot of plays that addressed immigrants from the perspective of first generation and second generation clashing, as well as addressing various themes. I think this play is a very original play. I'm trying to show the authentic voice of immigrants that are Muslim along with their children like myself who grew up right in the thick of hip hop during the late 70's and 80's. I think people have one view of Muslims. I'd like to write plays that show audiences we are more than just the cliche of caricatures you see everyday. There are folks who grew up in Muslim households that are not the stereotype, there are muslims who rebel, are defiant, some smoke weed, some practice the religion, some do not , but most of all we are human. Sometimes people forget that. I'm trying to just write stories that bring that truth, that diversity to the stage and screen with nuance. There is very anti-immigrant sentiment right now. It's actually nothing new because racism is American as apple pie. Arts is a great weapon to combat that-- especially comedy. The theater is best place to tell the truth, that kind of captivating experience is what makes me fall in love with live performance.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I'm hoping to finish my next play Halal Brothers about two brothers from Bangladesh that own a Halal store in Harlem with events taking place the day of Malcolm X's assassination in 1965. I wrote it really for Aasif Manvi who is brilliant. I'm also working on finishing editing my documentary in Search of Bengali Harlem. It's about the first wave of Bengali Muslims that arrived in Harlem from 1880's to present day.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  When I was a little kid I lived in the projects and never thought writers existed. I read a book called Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas. That book took place on my block on 104th street. I was fascinated that anyone who wrote about my neighborhood. When I read this book he created a vivid picture of places I walked in daily. I couldn't believe that you could write about where you lived. I was 11 years old and inspired to write. I attended the boys's club on 111th street and as fate would have it the photography teacher there knew Piri Thomas. I told him I wrote a few short stories. So he took me out to Piri Thomas' house by Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn to meet him. I was about 11 years old. I was a bit starstruck by Piri Thomas as I loved that book. It was a bit overwhelming as all these adults were there. Later in the night people were playing congas and they were reciting poetry. Piri Thomas told me to get up and read one of my stories. I kept nodding my head saying, "no, no, no!" Piri told me he would read one piece and he would be next to me and persuaded me to read my short. Piri said his piece and then I took a deep breath and read my short piece as my knees were shaking. It was about me looking out my window on 104th and Park Avenue wondering where the metro north trains were going. Were they going to a place where people didn't have to walk up 15 flights when the elevator broke? Or was it a place where people were going to get chocolate like in willa wonka world and on on and on. After I finished people were cheering and Piri bear hugged me. Not only did writng captivate me but I got the satisfying feeling of what live performance was like at age 11. Maybe that day a solo performer was born.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  Wished Playwrights of color who don't have many grants or obies, or tonys could get a fair share of being produced and not shut out of the conversation. Bureaucracy is what I'd love to change. The politics of this hustle of being produced is what I wish we could change. It's a damn shame how politics play a huge part in how one gets produced but in the land of the blind the one eyed man is king. It sure would be nice if it were a level playing field. So if you don't come from a fancy MFA program they look at you like they are watching paint dry. That is a conversation that could take days to discuss so I'll leave it there.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  August Wilson. Ruben Santiago Hudson, Eugene O'Neil, Arthur Miller. David Henry Hwang, Liesl Tommy, Dominique Morriseau, Lynn Nottage, Stephen Adly Guirguis.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  The kind that moves you. I could watch August Wilson plays nonstop. I really like new playwrights that challenge the status quo that really show you the humanity of folks people ignore. There is nothing more exhilarating than creating theater, art that challenges audiences to think, to look out of a window they are not looking out of. I love plays that put on the gloves and punch audiences in the gut with truth, the way a boxer fights in the ring. Theater possesses the potential to tell the truth. Playwrights from Odetts to Beckett, from O'Neill to August Wilson, from David Henry Hwang to Dominique Morriseau. Each bring a no BS authenticity to the stage and make audiences see the injustice as they root for the underdog. That's the kind of theater I want to be a part of. You can keep your BS theater for tourists on Broadway, I want theater that rocks peoples world, that challenges them to hear voices from people that have been marginalized. That's what I'm talking  about. I love that. That's the theater that NEEDS to be seen.

Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Writing is rewriting so keep writing. Find a place where you can develop find actors that you trust, create your own space and don't wait for any theater, or artistic director to validate you. Keep it moving keep it busy, stay inspired, write stories that resonate with your heart and keep getting up when you fall, rejection is not the end of the world if you love it embrace it and enjoy the f-g journey!

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Dishwasher Dreams
written and directed by:
Aladdin Ullah
Tabla accompaniment-Avi Sharma
Directed by Gabriel Vega Weissman
543 W 42nd Street
Playing till Nov. 18th.
more info:

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