A dishwasher’s dream finds flavor in a melting pot
New York City’s Spanish Harlem in the 1930s-1940s was a melting pot where neighbors relied on each other more than family. In those days, borrowing a cup of sugar, sharing onions, or exchanging chili peppers was more than just a gesture; it was an unwritten code of survival. Unexpected guests found comfort in the warmth of borrowed coats, and cups and saucers made their rounds. It was an era when trust and comfort among families who had left their distant homelands were the foundations of a closely-knit hybrid community.
This is where comedian-playwright-filmmaker Alauddin Ullah’s journey begins. Like so many gritty, tenacious immigrants before him, Alauddin’s father immigrated from Bangladesh, and despite being educated in his homeland, took up a job as a dishwasher to make ends meet. He learned the art of cooking and delighted clients with his perfect blend of salt and spice. Over time, he put together enough funds to purchase a restaurant.
Alaudin Ullah’s journey back to his roots takes center stage this week, as he opens the West Coast premiere of his solo-actor play, Dishwasher Dreams, at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. Directed by the award-winning Chay Yew, and accompanied by percussionist Avirodh Sharma, a protégé of tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, the show takes us from 1930s Bangladesh to 1970s Spanish Harlem, and onwards to present-day Hollywood.
Dishwasher Dreams is a vibrant companion piece to Ullah’s award-winning documentary, In Search of Bengali Harlem, soon to stream on PBS. Through this journey, the audience is transported from 1930s Bangladesh to 1970s Spanish Harlem and onwards to present-day Hollywood.
So near yet so far
Ullah’s childhood in Spanish Harlem was a tapestry of diverse cultures and lifelong friendships. His Latino friends welcomed him into their homes, where they shared not just meals, but the essence of their cultures— their mothers’ signature dishes like chili rialto and machher jhol– brought them closer. It was a time when they yearned to distance themselves from their parents’ heritage, yet the call of their motherlands, separated by vast oceans, still tugged at their hearts.
Ullah’s story deviates from the typical expectations placed on immigrant children. While many expected him to become a doctor or an engineer, Ullah, a New York Yankees fan, found himself on the rough road of the performing arts, a path not particularly welcoming of those with South Asian Muslim heritage. He had his fair share of struggles in the New York and Los Angeles comedy club circuit before, one day, he watched a performance by legendary comedian George Carlin; a fire was ignited in him.
In the last two decades, Ullah emerged as one of the first South Asian comedians featured nationally on HBO, MTV, BET, PBS, and Comedy Central. With an urge to step outside the boundaries of stereotypical auditions for roles of cab drivers and other such desi tropes, Ullah took to writing.
I had the privilege of interviewing Alaudin Ullah.From the moment we met, his convivial, jovial, and personable nature shone through. His easy-going manner allows him to effortlessly strike up captivating conversations even with strangers.
Here are some excerpts of my interview with him.
Live Performances: September 16- October 15, 2023
Official Press Opening: Thursday, September 21, 8 p.m.