Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, is the theatrical debut of humorist and The Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj. It plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City from January 7-30.
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Any non-white kid growing up in America at one point or another wants to be associated with whiteness. Maybe even wish they would one day be white as Hasan Minhaj did in the third grade, which he reflects on in his new one-man show Homecoming King at Cherry-Lane Theater. Minhaj, who joined The Daily Show as a correspondent in November 2014, brings a light-hearted, candid, and at times self-indulgent look into his childhood.
Hasan Minhaj grew up in Davis, California, in a largely white town. His parents emigrated from Aligarh, India, and he recounts in detail the circumstances of his parents’ marriage, his mother’s eight-year absence as she finished medical school, his estranged younger sister, along with all the burdens of being a child of immigrant parents — being the lucky one to leave the homeland, the weight of achieving the American Dream.
From his family, he meanders to a tale of his thirteen-year-old best friend and how he failed him when he needed him the most. The core of the performance revolves around the story of his high-school prom date and an incident of racial prejudice that leaves lasting resentment and insecurities.
As a brown man navigating a white world, he occasionally resorts to translation. He explains to the audience differences between Hindu and Muslim (one likes cartoons while the other doesn’t) in a manner which seems both intentionally reductive for comic effect but also unsatisfying because it provides no greater insight. He touches briefly on the India-Pakistan partition violence, and if anything, he wants to point out the absurdity of these religious labels on brown people who look practically the same, which is the case for most civil strife. People who look like each other will still kill each other.
A general thematic element of the show is to brush against big issues, make broad gestures toward them, and then move away. For example when he tries to tie in larger themes of racism and tolerance, he overreaches comparing the raping of Sally Hemmings by Thomas Jefferson to Fox News anchors hating Muslims but loving halal chicken and rice. By the end of the performance, Hasan calls himself the cure to racism, which feels like a stretch even if he’s able to reflect on a moment of racial prejudice and find restorative value from it.
In Neil Genzlinger’s review for The New York Times, he said, “It’s also worth noting that Mr. Minhaj injects his tales with language, rhythms and hand gestures popularized by black rappers. Appropriating from one world while trying to secure a place in another makes you wonder if he’s really found his identity at all.”
Yes, there’s misappropriation in the show like referring to sexual violence as love as he did with his Thomas Jefferson reference, but questioning Hasan Minhaj’s grasp of his identity reveals how a brown body does not have autonomy in creating its own messy narrative in a post-colonial world. Borders are still drawn around it.
In a comedy scene with a mostly white and black dichotomy, where does the brown comedian fall?
As a Muslim South Asian child growing up in a white town, he speaks from the perspective of marginalization. He acknowledges wanting to fit in but doesn’t really talk about what assimilation means, absorbing the dominant culture that picks and chooses which narratives it wants.
One aspect of the American Dream is trying to run as close as you can to privilege while distancing yourself from any legacy of inequality. There’s a moment in the show after his father’s bypass surgery that he admits to Hasan how fearful he was of everything in America. Hasan doesn’t fully explore his father’s thought process because if he did he might see then that as a son of recent immigrants, he has the privilege to pursue the American Dream without the burden of a history associated with that dream.
Much of what happens in Homecoming King might seem familiar to the strong brown presence in the audience. There is a certain enjoyment in seeing similar representations of your childhood being played out on stage even if they are typical characteristics like bowl hair cuts and the constant, single-minded pressures of parents for their children’s academic excellence. While the 70-minute journey with Hasan Minhaj might be more anecdotal than revelatory, there are so few brown faces on stage and on screen that his presence is certainly refreshing.
Though confessional in nature, his exploration of identity feels limited. Outside the confines of Davis where he grew up, can he dig deeper?
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Akil Kumarasamy is a writer from New Jersey. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Awl, The Boston Review, Guernica, Glimmer Train, and The Massachusetts Review.