Dishwasher Dreams at Writers Theatre Credit: Michael Brosilow

Alaudin Ullah was on the cusp of something big. Well, what too often passes for something big when you’re an actor in Hollywood of South Asian ancestry—the chance to audition for the role of a terrorist in a blockbuster by a big-name director. But then Ullah got a call from his brother, telling him that their mother was seriously ill and he had to come home to New York to see her. Immediately.

That precipitating incident forms the framework for Ullah’s solo show, Dishwasher Dreams, now at Writers Theatre in a production directed by former Victory Gardens artistic director Chay Yew. 

Dishwasher Dreams
Through 1/16: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Sun 12/26 and 1/9, 6 PM and Wed 1/12, 3 PM; no shows Fri-Sat 12/24-12/25 and 12/31-1/1; Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe, 847-242-6000, writerstheatre.org, $35-$90. Also available streaming for $50.

The dishwasher in the title refers to Ullah’s late father, Habib, who immigrated from what was then known as East Bengal (later East Pakistan, and finally Bangladesh) to Spanish Harlem at a time when people from South Asia were legally prohibited from entering the U.S. After jumping ship in New York, Habib supported first himself and later his family by washing dishes in restaurants. (He also briefly ran the first Bengali restaurant in New York: the Bengal Garden, which was in the Manhattan theater district in the 1940s.)

Ullah, who broke ground himself as one of the first South Asian comedians to be featured on HBO and Comedy Central stand-up programs and whose work as a voice actor has been heard in projects such as Sita Sings the Blues, decided more recently to focus on playwriting (he is in the MFA program at Columbia and was in the inaugural Emerging Writers group at New York’s Public Theater) in part because of how tired he got of Hollywood stereotyping. (Early in the show, he recounts the time a casting director asked him, “Can you do a Muslim accent?” as if that were actually a thing.)

This show feels like a good case study in writing what you know: Ullah’s story is sown with specific details and interludes that hook us in, while laying out a classic bildungsroman about a child of immigrants learning about his parents’ lives. A section where he describes seeing Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali for the first time with his family is particularly evocative. Ullah moves from loving parody of Bollywood conventions (the sort of films his family usually saw together) to a moving absorption in Ray’s world. It was the first film, he tells us, where he saw people who spoke Bengali, rather than Hindi (which he doesn’t speak) or English. (Not to mention that it’s a film where people don’t suddenly break into song and dance.)

A trip to his father’s hometown of Noakhali, Bangladesh, and a one-time meeting with a cousin lays out just how differently his own life might have turned out, had his father not decided to risk it all by coming to the U.S. The mix of cultures in Spanish Harlem, where Ullah’s family sticks out (and where Ullah is sometimes bullied by classmates) comes alive with wit and a little bit of danger. A chance meeting with his comedy idol, George Carlin, helps Ullah commit to not punching down or going for easy jokes, while still being self-deprecating.

As a solo performer, Ullah still seems to be looking for ways to make the transitions in his 90-minute show a bit smoother. One occasionally senses an imbalance in energy between the comedian looking to land the punch line and the storyteller who trusts the tale to work on its own terms. But the resonant musical accompaniment of tabla player Avirodh Sharma adds richness to the story, which gives us a snapshot of the remarkable people who raised Ullah. (His father, who was much older than his mother, died when Ullah was still young; his mother raised him and his older brother in the projects.)

It’s a familiar story in many ways, but it’s also a rare portrait of a culture not often represented on American stages. Ullah’s stories about his family have already inspired Vivek Bald’s 2013 book, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America; he and Bald are codirecting a documentary, In Search of Bengali Harlem, slated to premiere on PBS in 2022.