Sharif Don't Like It / Assimilation
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 13, 2009
The 2nd National Asian American Theater Festival is presenting a double bill of solo plays by Shishir Kurup, Sharif Don't Like It and Assimilation. Fans of fine acting and writing will not want to miss this program. And Americans of every stripe—fairly recent immigrants like Kurup, or folks whose families have been here for many generations—will find much food for thought in these provocative, incisive, and timely works.
The first piece, Assimilation, is a collage of vignettes about the contemporary South Asian immigrant experience in the U.S.A. It is clearly autobiographical—there is a segment where Kurup leads the audience in reciting the polysyllabic name of his father—and it is filled with sharp insights about how Americans perceive newcomers and how these newcomers perceive Americans. My favorite scene in Assimilation in one in which Shishir is auditioning for the role of an Indian doctor named Habib; his response when the casting director suggests he make the character more "ethnitical" is hilarious and pretty unforgettable. Other highlights include a confrontation with an American boy that ends with Shishir teaching his new "friend" how to swear in several languages, and a monologue by an African man in Mombasa, Kenya (the city Shishir lived in before his family emigrated to the United States). One of the things this show reminds us is that while prejudice and stereotyping are not uniquely American by any means, much of the rest of the world used to believe that such things did not exist in the land of the free. Wouldn't it be wonderful if that had ever been, or now was, true?
After a brief interlude, Kurup returns to the stage with the second piece, Sharif Don't Like It. This is a powerful, bitterly sardonic look at how life has changes for at least some brown-skinned people in America in the 21st century. It takes place in an interrogation room, where Sharif Atta, a linguistics professor of Indian descent who teaches at Cal State, is being held and questioned. Sharif's surname, the same as one of the 9/11 hijackers, has put him on a list of "questionable" persons, as has his address (91101 Allah Road). Sharif is asked about various actions in his past and about his beliefs while his unseen interrogator soliloquizes about why a depersonalized "enemy" feels necessary—as it did during World War II—in post-9/11 America.
We start to realize at some point that Sharif is undergoing a subtle but insidious kind of humiliation here: a kind of torture. The genius of the play is that Kurup portrays both roles—the interrogator in a voiceover, and Sharif on stage. Because of an intercom malfunction, the interrogator (and the audience) can't hear anything Sharif says, forcing him to mime all of his responses. It's as vivid a metaphor as I can conceive for the injustices perpetrated against Americans following the World Trade Center attacks. Sharif Don't Like It is a potent, jolting work of theatre that reminds us how much remains to be done before there will actually be liberty and justice for all.
Kurup is a brilliant and versatile actor with charisma to spare; he's also a fine director and writer as both of these shows demonstrate. I first encountered him at a panel a couple of months ago in conjunction with the publication of his play Merchant on Venice in Neilesh Bose's anthology Beyond Bollywood and Broadway, and I am very excited to now have seen Kurup's work in person as part of this remarkable festival. Several other fully staged productions and readings are happening this week under the auspices of NAATF and I wish I could see them all. This is theatre that entertains, engages, and broadens us all; bravo to the festival's organizers and participating artists for bringing this diverse work to New York City.