The Immigrant Experience on Display in The Old Globe's 'Dishwasher Dreams'
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, Sept. 24, 2023
Under the direction of Obie and Craig Noel Award winner Chay Yew, Dishwasher Dreams, the brainchild of Alaudin Ullah, has officially opened at The Old Globe where it will run through October 15.
Opening the production is percussionist Avirodh Sharma, playing an engaging series of original rhythms on a traditional tabla set. Sharma is playful; while he excels at his highly technical original rhythmic tunes, he finds opportunities to wink at his audience, to sneak in a ditty from The Pink Panther, and to encourage crowd interaction during rhythmic phrases, thus serving to effectively warm up the audience for the main event. The show itself immediately follows, crafted as a one-act comedic storytelling set which follows the life and experiences of Alaudin Ullah and his family members: his father's arrival in Spanish Harlem, how his parents met, his childhood in New York City, and even his work in stand-up comedy and acting in Hollywood.
I can only imagine how difficult it is to tell an autobiographical story of this nature and to be the only one onstage for this length of time, but Ullah does just that, performing his cleverly crafted script over the course of the 140 minute, no-intermission play. And while the performance I saw lacked a bit of polish, the clever writing had me seeing the potential that exists in this run and in subsequent iterations of Dishwasher Dreams.
One particularly noteworthy move that Ullah has made lies in the application of parallel structure within the script. Over the course of the show, Alaudin uses repeating phrases to illustrate the similarities between his parents’ generation and his own as well as the differences. For example, the script references the words “heaven, utopia, paradise” to describe his father’s arrival, after a long trip across the sea, to Spanish Harlem, as well as to explain the feelings associated with his own eventual move to his first solo apartment at age 19. Ullah also uses the words “rebels” and “outcasts” to describe his father's compatriots back in 1917 Bangladesh as well as to describe his own friend group in New York in the 80s. These repeated motifs create a sense of parity across the duo of storylines, thus creating the opportunity to illuminate key moments of contrast, often found in juxtaposed scenes, such as one conflating the front door knob with his father’s hand.
Ullah also finds ways to intersperse and elevate wisdoms that have informed his journey and his belief structure throughout the show, as when he describes the richness of diversity in his family’s Spanish Harlem building, tells of his hero George Carlin’s reminder to “make fun of the stereotype” but not “become one,” and shares about the direct impact of key moments of his family’s life from his dad’s treatment under Jim Crow Laws to his own feeling of humanity in a crowded theatre watching a Bengali film.
Performed on a wood slat stage with a single chair (by scenic designer Yu Shibagaki), director Chay Yew has used Ullah’s movement from one zone to another (and the concurrent shifts of square patches of light by lighting designer Anshuman Bhatia) to signify a modulation in time, space, or character. These transitions are nearly always accompanied by additional tabla rhythms by Sharma.
While I believe all audience members were likely able to access the action on the stage, I wonder if a different location (not in the round) and perhaps a few pared down scenes might have helped maintain higher energy throughout the show. The opening night performance felt a bit slow with some lengthy pauses between the various scenes of the play. This, paired with a very measured cadence, led to the production feeling a bit longer and heavier than was likely intended.
But where it feels long, it also feels like there are some valuable takeaways: not only do we have a chance to experience these authentic experiences that we might not have seen or felt on our own, but we are also being invited into a conversation about the American Dream and its accessibility to all - or not - which is just as relevant today as ever.
Dishwasher Dreams runs through October 15 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre.