Azhar Usman’s website quotes Dave Chappelle as calling Usman a “comedian from the future,” and that’s true enough. A big-bearded, believing, yet “secular” Muslim of Indian descent, who puts himself in the “brown” racial “bucket” and affects hip-hop idioms when it suits him (“Yooo . . . whatsup? ISIS in the house!”), Usman is well situated to appeal to just about every segment of America’s postwhite posterity.
His often funny, significantly flawed new one-man show at Silk Road Rising looks at first glance like a move toward tapping those burgeoning constituencies. In a dozen vignettes (a prologue, an epilogue, and ten “scenes” repurposing some material Usman’s fans may find familiar from his stand-up act), Ultra American: A Patriot Act addresses subjects like racial profiling, alt-right reactionaries, and, particularly, the double consciousness that W.E.B. DuBois identified as characteristic of oppressed and marginalized African-Americans. Usman offers a raw interpretation of the concept. “Double consciousness is the idea that Black people in America are of two minds, two hearts, constantly at war, feeling pulled in two opposite directions,” he tells us. “One side is like: ‘Yo man, I LOVE America. It’s the greatest country on earth.’ . . . But the other side is like: ‘Yo man . . . FUCK AMERICA!'” Then he gives us a look at how double consciousness haunts him as a Muslim in the era of full-body airport scanners.
But you quickly come to understand that Usman’s 90 minutes aren’t aimed at the people he presumes to represent. They’re aimed at white folks—who, at least for now, are likely to constitute the lion’s share of his theater audience.
Not that he panders, exactly. No, his approach is playfully oppositional. Usman spends lots of time telling his pinker patrons what he supposes they don’t know or will be shocked at. The abovementioned “ISIS in the house” greeting is followed by a joshing disclaimer: “I’m sorry, I know that shit is too sensitive for some of you.” Later, in a scene about what he calls the white civil rights movement, he gets more specific: “I can tell that some of our white friends may be feeling a bit uncomfortable.”
Of course, Usman wouldn’t have much of a show if he didn’t deploy some version of this shtick; so much of Ultra American: A Patriot Act trades on how his looks determine the way he’s treated, not just by his fellow citizens but, in an interesting passage set in Amman, Jordan, by would-be ISIS recruiters. The gambit is disingenuous, though, in that it exploits the very stereotypes Usman is ostensibly refuting. It’s hypocritical and condescending—racial profiling lite that never rises to the level of a taunt yet builds into an alienating annoyance, especially inasmuch as the whites in the audience very likely knew what they were getting into when they signed up for an evening with somebody named Azhar Usman.
Usman is much more compelling when he leaves us to our thoughts and focuses on his own instead. He does a clever riff on identity vis-a-vis the Superman/Clark Kent conundrum. Another connects the biblical fall from innocence to modern advertising.
Where Usman falls down very, very hard is on the subject of Jews. Having grown up in Skokie (“I went to so many bar mitzvahs . . . I was waiting for mine.”), he considers himself an expert. He isn’t. In fact, he makes all the classic blunders of the well-meaning outsider, starting with the declaration “I love Jews”—as if they were pizza or baseball—and touching on such patronizing tropes as that they’re all high-earning professionals.
That sort of thing can be rationalized as Usman’s way of gaming ethnic cliches. He pushes on, however, into Elders of Zion territory with comments about how “statistically non-existent” Jews wield “incredible power and influence” and run the six media companies that—he and online conspiracists say—”own well over 90% of all the mass media in the United States.” Toward the end of Ultra American: A Patriot Act he claims that those six companies have “brainwashed” good Westerners into hating Muslims. Usman cautions us that he’s talking about Zionists, not Jews, but that’s a distinction without a difference—a rhetorical evasion.
If I thought Usman was an out-and-out anti-Semite, I’d have put the previous two paragraphs at the top of my review. I’m hoping he’s just a man with uninspected prejudices—the cure for which, obviously, is inspecting them. That would behoove someone who closes his show by professing to love us all very much. v