Despite his middle-class status and Republican values, the experiences of Mohammed Ali, a Pakistani accountant, are particularly salient in post-9/11 America. Having lived here since 1976, Mohammed retains hope in the best this country has to offer while he also seems to be living through the worst—the state-sponsored roundup, detention, and deportation of Muslim men with no connection to terrorism. But it is his love for poetry that Mohammed uses to bring together a diverse range of immigrants to share their stories in verse.
A twenty-something Vietnamese guy who settled in the Midwest as a refugee with his family and spits lyrics critical of the exotification of Asian culture, a wealthy Haitian immigrant who recites a poem about the feelings she has for her new country despite discrimination from a real estate agent (“God bless America, but not because of you”), and a Chinese woman who comes to grips with her daughter’s sexuality and ultimately stands behind her fight for same-sex marriage rights are all immigrants who present their stories in the fictional poetry reading hosted by Mohammed. And they are all characters played by actress Sarah Jones in her performance piece Waking the American Dream—including Mohammed.
The 28-year-old African American performer made a name for herself as a star on the slam poetry scene and in two separate one-woman shows—Surface Transit in which she portrays characters from all walks of life in New York City, and Women Can’t Wait, which features women from around the world addressing the United Nations about gender discrimination in their home countries. In her latest piece, Jones takes on the roles of 12 immigrants and single-handedly weaves polished and politically charged stories across generational, gender, and party lines.
As immigrant rights issues are moving to the fore of racial justice movements since 9/11, it is only fitting that politically conscious artists integrate these themes into their work. I caught up with Jones to find out what she thought about the significance of an African American artist playing immigrant characters talking about racism.
What are some of the messages you’re trying to get across in Waking the American Dream?
Since the show is only an hour, there’s a certain limit to the number of voices I was going to be able to deliver to an audience. The goal was to give enough time for each character, so that it’s not just the snippets of a person’s face and an accent that you might hear on your mainstream television.
I really wanted to show the complexity of their stories. We realized that not only did we have the September 10 issues to contend with but also the post-September 11 issues—the really nakedly racist and ethnically focused attacks on immigrants, particularly Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent and Arabs.
One thing that stands out is your ability to convey really complex and well-developed characters in such a short amount of time for each person.
I find that if you just stick to what’s real, you can accomplish a lot more than anybody gives us credit for in the arts world or in the entertainment world. I really thought there was no way I could do this, because everyone will think they’re stereotypes. If you portray people of any background, particularly traditionally marginalized groups of people, the first thing that comes to people’s minds is a stereotype or making fun of an accent.
The people that I sat down with to interview, whatever their class background, whatever their experiences coming here, these people were amazing storytellers.
Those are stories that we can all benefit from as Americans, and while we’re sitting around waving our flags and being so proud of our diversity, none of us actually seems to be able to tap into or have access to the real strength of that diversity.
As a black woman, I can tell you I don’t need another Shenéné stereotype. I want to know what the person’s real experiences are, what are the real things that motivate them, and restore some dignity to who most of us really are—mostly working-class people who are coming from a variety of different backgrounds.
You open your piece with Mitzi, an 87-year-old German immigrant, emphasizing the commonalities of the immigrant experience from back in the day to now; can you also talk about the ways in which immigrants have been racialized, in the sense of whether the experiences of immigrants of color have been markedly different…
I don’t think there’s any doubt that when you look at the intersection of racism and our current and past policies on immigration there’s a lot of material there for an artist to write about. Even if we just look at how internment was able to happen to Japanese Americans during World War II and how that parallels this current moment of detaining, without any kind of explanation or any kind of legal basis, all of the thousands of people of Middle Eastern descent who are literally still currently in our penal facilities in this country. Not to mention the people from the 25 countries who had to come in and have the equivalent of what I guess Palestinian people are familiar with now—a kind of a checkpoint for your identity and whether you can even stay in the country and whether a parking ticket is now suddenly going to make you an enemy combatant.
So, why did you choose your character Mohammed Ali, the Pakistani immigrant, to be the host of the event?
I really just wanted a person that you might meet, somebody that people might recognize. I thought that Mohammed represented an interesting set of contradictions embodied by this character who is an accountant and who has got these Republican values and has been embraced by the community where he lives in Virginia, for the most part. They like him—they call him “Mo.” But at the same time, now he’s finding that he has to defend himself and that some of the gleaming democratic values that this country supposedly holds dear are showing a little tarnish after September 11. He’s a charismatic, really passionate person, who happens to love poetry. I also wanted him because I hadn’t ever seen a person like him in a main role or a lead role anywhere, and I really thought he was cool.
How do you see immigrant issues as relevant to black folks in America in general, but also in terms of the younger generations making those links?
It really is about a global community for me, and that doesn’t mean I don’t love my neighborhood, and New York, and this country; I also know that there’s much more that I have in common with people all over the world than I have in common with half the people who are out here waving their flags, singing bad country songs about how we haven’t found bin Laden.
As a black person, I can tell you that I know that people of various backgrounds experience racism, and it’s always a little different. It’s never a good idea to totally equate these different struggles because they do all have their own really specific characteristics and challenges. But to me, they are all enmeshed. You cannot look at one and not be also touching on another.
Once we have access to real history, real information, real news, the connections become immediately clear. I think that has been this country’s greatest achievement—making sure that most of us don’t know what’s going on or aren’t allowed access to the real complex histories that connect us all. I empathize with everybody who struggles. Unfortunately, that’s the whole damn world at this point, save Bush and the oligarchy here.
Give me a sentence or phrase about the following topics.
Security threats in America.
Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condosleezy Rice, and my favorite, Colin Powell, who, as a child of immigrants himself, should be ashamed.
Entertainment as a form of escape.
I think we’re past entertainment as a form of escape at this point; you know how there’s truth serum? It’s a dumbing down serum; it’s not even escape anymore, it almost seems like it’s designed to numb people and render their brains incapable of processing anything besides how to write down an 800 number so you can call American Idol Baby and vote for the best-singing three-year-old or whatever. It’s beyond anything I could have imagined.
So, don’t tell me you weren’t happy when Ruben won American Idol…
[laughing] Yes, we were all happy for Ruben, because as I said this an all-encompassing movement.