Friday, March 27, 2009

Usman's thoughts

We are now in our last weekend of American Ethnic, and the fact that we have 4 sold out shows is an amazing testament to the beautiful artistic work, and excellent marketing of this production! I could not be happier with how things have turned out for us…the work is slick, meaningful and diverse. The production values are excellent, the talk backs with academics and civic leaders brilliant. I think this is the first year that thinkTank has really been what was first envisioned- a month of powerful eclectic and socially conscisous work.

As an actor and an artist its been a great growth process for me as well, giving me the opportunity to hone some of my writing, figuring out what works for me and what doesn’t, and what do I need to be able to tell a story clearly, AND stylistically. Its been dope, its been real, and I am excited to see where we can take this show- around the country, festivals…the sky is the limit.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Kelly reflects....

I can’t believe we’re already on the last weekend of our run for “American Ethnic” -- I’d have to say that I’m incredibly proud of our work. The fact that critics, theater fans, spoken word folks, hip hop heads, activist types, and people who just kinda stumbled into the show have all had a deep connection with the work emotionally and intellectually, means a lot to me. I feel like it’s a real testament to the beauty of this collaboration. This show is as good an example as any of what is possible when people from diverse backgrounds (experience-wise and artistically) listen to each other, respect each other’s talents, and are open enough to being inspired by bringing out the best in ourselves.

So yes, it is absolutely living the dream in so many different ways, and thank you so much to everybody who’s come out to support the show – it means so so much! We’re having convo’s right now about the future life of the show, so hopefully it will be in a city near you – and if you are a presenting organization or school that would like to bring us out – most definitely let us know! I know the words, thoughts, experiences, and post-show discussions evoked by the show will be staying with me and my art for a very long time

Friday, March 20, 2009

A note from an Audience Member

American Ethnic deals with ethnicity, race, gender and class issues from the perspective of three artists: Usman Ally, Idris Goodwin, and Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai. Usman Ally is a Pakistani man, Idris Goodwin is an African-American man, and Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai is a Taiwanese woman. At times performing together and usually performing apart, the three artists, confront us with their experiences and thoughts in America and abroad as minorities. To understand the show it is also helpful to know the mission of thinkTank: “thinkTank features dramatic works with a focus on provoking timely conversation about a social, political or economic issue in which Chicago citizens have a stake.” Further, they provide this opportunity for conversation immediately following the production of their shows. ...

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The Reviews are In!

"a funny and powerful mash-up of three vibrant young voices raised in defiance of the status quo." - Leon Hilton, Chicago Reader

"this is one helluva show. Three writer-performers occupy the stage like they're standing on the ledge of a is entirely about the here and now." - New City Stage

"a new, unexpected and inspiring experience...It's very smart. It's very moving." - Annabel Armour, Actress and Remy Bumppo Artistic Associate

"The writer-performers ... are clearly aware of the complexities involved in viewing modern media through this lens..." - Brian Nemtusak, TimeOut Chicago

"The profound sketches...did cause me to reflect on some of my own ideas about the topics ... It was enlightening." - Katheryne Lumous, Remy Bumppo patron"It's Cheap. It's Unexpected. It's Great. Go." - Karen Aldridge, Actress

Did you know you can listen to all American Ethnic post-show discussions from your home?
Log on to and search "Chicago Amplified Archives" for all of Remy Bumppo's programs.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Stage Management

I moved to Chicago to be a part of projects like American Ethnic. The pieces are personal and poignant; they tell a story of our ethnic past and present, they ask the dangerous questions about where WE are headed as a county - as people. Pieces that instill change into an audience, that help shape they way they view the world. I guess it may sound trite, but this is why I chose this as my profession.

We have just finished our tech weekend and are jumping into tech/opening week. Tech week is my favorite week...I get to be "hands on" with the production, helping to pull all the pieces together and watch it take shape. This collaberation, has been extremely rewarding for me - to work with such talented individuals and produce something that can cause change, it's a rarity (though not at Remy Bumppo :).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Well the weekend was grueling. A ten hour tech on Saturday and another 5 hours on Sunday, but it was well worth it. The show is in great shape, the lights and sound adding a great deal of color, vibrancy and immediacy to the production. It’s great working with sound expert Nick Keenan, and lighting wizz Stephanette. Under the guiding eye of stage manager Amy Bertacini and director Nick Sandys, tech weekend was unusually relaxed but efficient at the same time.
As for the performers, we are getting a little antsy, ready to put this show up in front of an audience! I can’t believe opening is so soon, and the nervous energy is getting the better of me! I am ready!
Shameless plug: Sunday evening Kelly and I will be at the Green Mill’s Uptown Poetry Slam this Sunday the 15th of March.

Then catch us at Café Mestizo Wednesday 18th March.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Nick Sandys: On Tech Rehearsal

The past weekend was full, full, full, as we added all the other elements of the production to the rehearsal text and went through a lengthy technical process. Not surprisingly, the sound score to the show is another character—which we are rehearsing in just two days, basically. Nick Keenan has a great feeling for the rhythms of the show, and thanks to places like Youtube, soundbites are now available for so many different historical and cultural moments—eg. from 2005 Amman bombings, to Elmer Fudd’s chuckle, to “Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane”—all of which appear at some point in the show. The performers were terrific at quickly adapting and welcoming their new scene partner, sometimes seamlessly. They seemed a little less used to adapting to finding their light, since that plot element is equally detailed to create the different looks and movement for all 21 pieces in the show. It is going to be a lot of fun, over the next few days, watching them get comfortable again.

And all Samantha’s costumes are very relaxed and unobtrusive, but characterful. I was torn over Kelly’s silver ankle sneakers but they would prove to be a little too Vegas for this particular version of the show, I think.

The hardest decisions have been about the set, where Tim Morrison is coming up with some amazing stencil images for the walls, but each one leads to an important debate about the connotations of the images, and why they are present or not. Once you use a media image but change its context, especially by putting into a show about racial issues, the echoes of meaning start to become deafening. Even the placement on the walls becomes thematic, about who is in and who is left out of the frame. This whole rehearsal process, and working with these three thinking artists, has been a wonderful debate about the issues we are staging—much of it essentially stemming from the central paradoxical problem of mixing hip-hop and classical theatre aesthetics. Hip-hop culture is all about specificity and individuality, speaking only for the different self and personal experience—but all conventional theatre is built around the idea of representation, that everything on the stage is a symbol or represents something in the real world, therefore always speaking for others, erasing difference. It is a conundrum that I hope will yield some very interesting talkbacks.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


What's up RB family? 10 days until opening night, and I'm SO excited. I'm really proud of the work that we're doing and seeing the possibilities, the borders and boundaries of the work and how to collaboratively and collectively lift text and performance from these humble pages in the 3-dimensional space of the theater. Something that Nick told us in rehearsal last week really resonates with me -- He mentioned how in the UK -- actors are trained to explore what emotion the character is going through and then hide it, since that's what most people do in real life. For me, as a spoken word artist, this totally flies in the face of what I think we usually do as spoken word artists.

Nick and I were talking how poetry (and particularly spoken word) is more often like music -- The performance is written into the musicality of the work -- you become the instrument through which the emotion is played as opposed to the ways that text and performance and emotion play out in theater. It's been a good exploration for me through the poetry and monologue work and rudimentary character development. I'm looking forward to fleshing out more and more the layers of what we've written into the work. Making all those discoveries that we maybe did not even know ourselves about race, gender, and media in America today...


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Cricket fan's nightmare

For a Pakistani seeing images of gunman firing at cricket players in a bus is one of the saddest sights ever. Cricket is a more than a national pastime for my people. Its something that binds us all together, and is in fact an obsession. Pakistani treat cricketers from all over the world like royalty, amazed at the talent, aggression and intelligence they show on the field. It is hard for an American to fully understand how the term "aggression" can be used in the same sentence as cricket, and because of the terrorist attack today, the word term has found a new, completely disgusting connection with our sport.

Pakistanis love aggressive bombastic cricket, but we love to see it on the field. We love to see a batsmen thrash a quick bowler who has been sending the ball down at him at over 99 Miles/hour.
We love to see the wickets smash when that bowler has got his revenge, chest thumping and being mobbed by his teammates. We blow horns in the crowd, we dance, we sing, we taunt the opposition. The andrenaline is so powerful.
As someone who played the game competitively for many years, there was no better feeling than winning a trying, tiring test match.

We love cricket. We love cricketers. We even love cricketers from other countries. We huddle around televisions and watch, and for a moment all the rest of the hardships of life, the suicide bombings, the taliban, the political instability, all of it doesnt matter anymore.

So, when cricketers are the targets of attacks by fanatical idiots, we feel outraged, ashamed and at total despair. This attack will kill cricket in Pakistan, and the biggest step to the death of our people. I am thankful that our friends the Sri Lankan cricket team were saved from serious harm. But now, no teams will tour Pakistan, and the stadiums will remain empty.

Its interesting watching these images on the screen from here in the states, so far away from the devastation, and then hearing my fathers voice on the phone lamenting the death of all civilization in Pakistan. He has a tendency to be melodramatic, but I have heard him say this over and over again this year and the last. This coming from a man who only a few years ago would never have said something like this about his own country. Pakistan is being slowly overrun but a small minority of nutjobs, who are unfortunately misrepresenting the entire population. How much can I really blame the media representations of me, when I see this violence by my people against my own people. How often can we shift the blame, pass the buck.

Over there bombs are going off, over here I'm writing a show about how unfair it is to be an actor of color. Sometimes, our perspective is so out of whack.
But, I know that just because things are worse somewhere else doesnt meant our own country should be immune from criticism. Voices of dissent, and outrage are what separate us from crazy nutjobs....both the Taliban types, and the ultra nationalists here in America.


Monday, March 2, 2009

Idris Goodwin talks about American Ethnic Rehearsal

Weds Feb.25
We are butchering Ol man River. No, we aren't doing showboat but elements of the song appear. (Did I just give away something important?) I feel Paul Robeson's spirit in the room and he is vomiting.......even that sounds better than our poor rendition of the song.

Nick knows a lot about how to stage violence (and quite possibly off stage violence). I have begun to ask him about random scenes in movies and plays to see if he knows how they were done. I have yet to stump him. I need to go into my blaxploitation film grab bag. Lets see if he knows how they did the fight scenes in Black Belt Jones! There is no physical violence in our show though nunchucks are referenced - the word BOMB shows up quite a bit as well.

Amy, our stage manager, typically reels our focus back in when we go off on tangents about movies and medieval weaponry (that's all Nick). Though she did join in a conversation about the plays of Martin McDonagh.

Usman and Kelly are very good actors in addition to writers. I have such regard for the craft of acting. Acting is hard. It looks so easy because that's the point - to do it so well it looks natural and effortless. But its very very hard. As a spoken word performer I typically perform the words and not the moment as Kelly would say. I know, I know, if it wasn't hard everyone would do it. I know I should be grateful and I am grateful.....I'm just sayin.....for me spoken word is fun, acting is work. Don't tell anyone. I got a reputation to maintain. I'm just sayin....

The themes of the show aside, this fusion (or maybe I can say exploration) of different performance styles is what has become the most interesting for me. collage, monologue, song, sketch, commentary, commentary, commentary - the specificity of current experience - the sweeping indictments - the odes - the pace that we move from piece to piece - the windows into culture - the celebration of both community and self - this feels like just the beginning of what is possible for us nerdy hip hop kids with aspirations for the stage.
idris goodwin