Chicago Theater Review: ULTRA AMERICAN: A PATRIOT ACT (Silk Road Rising)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 9, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Reviewing stand-up comedy, as opposed to dramatic monologues or one-man shows, is not my forte. But occasionally a mind-opener like Ultra American: A Patriot Act, an 80-minute world premiere hosted by Silk Road Rising at the Chicago Temple, deserves to be dealt with as drama. In this not at all routine comedy, it seems wiser to set aside the jokes and contemplate the content: This wicked piece of “outsider art” by Indian-American comic Azhar Usman chronicles a powerful post-azhar_usman_3-854x12809/11 perspective—call it “stand-out stand up.” The unavoidable topic: how, unlike less targeted citizens, American Muslims are constantly provoked to prove their patriotism. What does that do to a self-preserving psyche that maintains that no one is to be judged by appearances?

Facing daily presumptions of guilt that demand constant proofs of innocence (and not just at airports), Usman has developed a survival philosophy, a self-detachment that doubles as a plea for tolerance or at least sanity. Usman tries to live in a constant present, like a bird that refuses to concentrate on his cage. Whether caught in the act of “flying while Muslim” or enduring the kneejerk xenophobia of the Republican banner-waver, Usman has adopted what W.E.B. Du Bois called a “double consciousness,” a wariness of becoming someone else’s stereotype. Preferring to live in a constant now, he eschews too precise a sense of time. Living in the moment is preferable to dwelling on or obsessing over the intractable stupidity of professional haters.

azhar_usman_6-853x1280A former lawyer who knows the danger of making distinctions without a difference, Usman, rather than be labelled un-American, calls himself “Ultra-American.” His “patriot act” (a delicious pun) asserts the virtue of refusing to succumb to other people’s racial profiling, including your own. While enjoying movies like American Sniper, Usman has to resist the self-hating temptation to root for the rifle. He describes his encounter with two ISIS recruiters, casebook examples of true believers who double their energy to atone for forgetting their cause.

Better to strive for a fluid present, rather than work overtime to catch yourself in the act of triggering someone else’s suspicions. Faced with “competing identities,” Usman refuses to be drawn into what Samuel Huntington called “a clash of civilizations.” He won’t choose between the polarities in Peter Ustinov’s leveling observation: “Terrorism is the war of the poor. And war is the terrorism of the rich.” In a country where, as he says, six mega-conglomerates (Disney, Comcast, Fox, Time Warmer, CBS Corporation and Viacom) all but control the media, he cultivates an “other-ness” similar to a Sufi mystic: “The Sufi sees his own existence like particles of dust, made visible by a ray of sunshine: neither real nor unreal.” Labels are for losers.


Describing a debate with an ideological opposite, Usman realizes how tempting it is to resemble your opponent, an unwitting “psychological terrorist” no better than somebody else’s extremism. Better to do your own self-profiling than rely on another’s racial animus. Be the bird, not the cage. In a pointlessly polarized world, tolerance is just another word for self-preservation.


azhar_usman_1-853x1280photos by by Crimson Cat Studios

Ultra American: A Patriot Act
Silk Road Rising at Pierce Hall
The Historic Chicago Temple Building
77 W. Washington St. Lower Level
Tues-Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat & Sun at 4
ends on September 26, 2016
for tickets, call 312.857.1234 x 201
or visit Ultra American
for more info, visit Silk Road Rising

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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