Azhar Usman, who has toured the world performing stand-up comedy and was recently hailed as "America's Funniest Muslim" by CNN, returns to his Chicagoland roots for the world-premiere of Ultra American: A Patriot Act. His upcoming performance will receive its premiere at Silk Road Rising Theatre in September and will run for a total of eighteen performances. Usman, a former Skokie attorney and graduate from Niles West High School, skewers issues of identity and race as a Muslim American Indian in his one-man show.
Usman, who now lives in Des Plaines, IL, describes growing up watching famous comedians like George Carlin and Richard Pryor with amazement when they tackled major topics in a way that was both funny and relevant. He thinks of Ultra American as his chance to "take what I really think and feel about a controversial subject and make it funny." The performance contains material about flying while Muslim, Donald Trump and the media's role in the rise of mainstream white supremacy, and even an incident where he was targeted for recruitment by two ISIS sympathizers in Amman, Jordan.
These issues are discussed with Usman's trademark mixture of candor, wit, and hilarity. Ultra American's place as a cornerstone of Silk Road Rising's 2016-17 season allows him to incisively dissect his ideologies in greater detail than while he's touring the country's comedy stages. "I think being a thought provoking artist is the only way to do it," Usman says, when asked about his brand of stand-up. This brand is one that stems from a long line of successful stand-up comedians, many of whom served as a great influence on him growing up.
When he was thirteen, Usman remembers seeing Latino comedian Paul Rodriguez joking about race and politics in a way that didn't sacrifice humor for insight. He credits Rodriguez for planting the seed that would grow into his career in stand-up comedy. Usman, an Indian American Muslim, remembers thinking, "Wouldn't it be great if there was a comic like Rodriguez who represented me?"
One never materialized. And Usman--who had gone to sketch comedy camps and performed in theatre productions at Niles West--had trouble working up the nerve to perform. When he attended law school in 1999 it was a close friend of his that was performing at open mic events, while Usman watched on as adorant fan and observant student.
After earning his degree in Law, Usman moved back to Chicago, where he continued to attend open mics and learn through careful study. He bought a book about stand-up comedy, followed some guidelines to create a simple, five-minute set, and finally worked up the courage to share his material at open-mic events in 2001. Usman was hooked.
The comedy world was hooked, too. Usman says that, to his surprise, "there was a lot of interest in a Muslim stand-up comedian who looked like me." Usman's career transformed in a matter of years, from practicing law in Skokie, IL to performing comedy in over twenty countries on tour with two other comedians. Azhar Usman has opened for Dave Chappelle and performed at comedy clubs, theaters, and campuses across the country.
While he no longer practices law, Usman's scholastic influences and commitment to justice can clearly be seen in the way he approaches stand-up. "I do feel this pressure to use whatever platform I have as an artist to serve something bigger than me and something that I really believe in," he says. Usman credits sociologist and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois--who pioneered the notion of double consciousness--as just as much of an influence on his work as comedians like Rodriguez.
Others have noted the role his Law degree plays in Usman's work as well. After opening for Dave Chappelle in Chicago, Usman got the chance to sit down with stand-up comedian Katt Williams to discuss his upcoming project, then titled Un-American. Williams told him he could tell Usman had been a lawyer because of the way that he talked about the double consciousness of being an American Muslim post-9/11. Usman was then encouraged by Williams to re-title his project to Ultra-American, since, in Williams' words, "I wouldn't say you were un-American." This conversation had a lasting impact on Usman who has since tried to reframe the way that he positions himself as American instead of falling into the trap of other-izing himself.
Ultra American: A Patriot Act, explores the very concepts at the root of Usman and Williams' conversation. How is Usman to make sense of his identity, when he must negotiate the labels Indian, Muslim, and American at a time when Donald Trump refuses to exit a dispute with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of a slain Muslim American soldier? At one point in his performance, Usman even discusses his paradoxical experience watching American Sniper in movie theaters. "Living in a state of double-consciousness presents a challenge moment-to-moment," he says. Usman characterizes his performance and mission as "a modest attempt to push back...in an attempt to make sense of it all."
Ultra American, which tackles these issues with personal stories and comedy, represents what Usman marks as the most ambitious creative project of his career. He also recognizes and appreciates that he has become the comedian he yearned for as a thirteen-year-old. Now Usman has the opportunity to give voice to a perspective and community that is often underserved in mainstream media.
"My goal is to make people laugh," Usman reflects. "I want to make people think about what it means to be American and how that concept affects their own identity."
Ultra American: A Patriot Act will receive its world premiere on September 6th, 2016 at Silk Road Rising theatre in Chicago, IL. The 18-performance production will run Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through September 25th. Tickets are $25 for Adults and $15 for Students, with group discounts available. For more information, or to buy tickets, visit www.UltraAmerican.org