According to The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, there's more to Hasan Minhaj than his "tall and amazing hair." Judging from a Pizza Hut commercial that featured Minhaj years ago, his hair used to be much taller. Stewart hired Minhaj last November as a Daily Show correspondent, and now the accomplished 30-year-old Muslim Indian-American is bringing audiences at the Cherry Lane Theatre his unique cultural insights in Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, directed by Greg Walloch. In the show, Minhaj talks about what it was like growing up "brown" in America. He also shares memories from his sometimes hotheaded youth. Homecoming King is as much an autobiographical sketch as it is a window into a culture that's often sidelined in America. As told by this smart and funny comedian, it's a show worth seeing — just be sure to ignore the advertised 70-minute runtime and prepare to stay in your seat for a somewhat longer ride.
When Minhaj takes the stage, he begins by bantering with the audience as though he's about to deliver a stand-up routine. At the show I attended, groups of Indian-Americans in the front rows bore witness to Minhaj's distinctive cultural memories about growing up in an Indian family in America. ("When you go back to Nepal," he says to one audience member, "don't you feel like the rapper who made it?") White people also hold a special fascination for Minhaj. "I had a huge Indian wedding," he says, "and I did it for my wife, and I did it for my white friends," because they're always so blown away by all the colors. Everyone gets some excellent ribbing before Minhaj switches gears and gets into more personal territory.
"Log Kya Kahenge" is a Hindi phrase that resonated with many in the audience, and it's the thread that ties the show together. Meaning "what will people think?," the words are drummed into the minds of every Indian youth by his or her parents, according to Minhaj, and function as a sort of behavior regulator, often with twisted results. He tells of how, as a young man, he rejected the attention and love of his little sister (who arrived in America with his mother after Minhaj and has father had been living here for about 10 years) because he feared the reaction of his school buddies if he spent time with her. Years later, he did the same with his friend Kevin, whom he failed to help during a fight.
But his big epiphany about "Log Kya Kahenge" and what it means to be brown in America comes when his white sort-of girlfriend, Bethany, stands him up for senior prom, because her parents don't want him to be in photos with their daughter. "We love you," Bethany's mother tells him, "but we're sending a lot of family back in Ohio pictures from tonight, and we don't think you'd be a good fit." Minhaj concedes that parents from Indian cultures have these sorts of prejudices too. He recently married a Hindu woman, a big no-no for a Muslim man. But he didn't get over Bethany for a long time. He still bore a grudge years later while he was struggling to make it as a comedian and beginning to get noticed (cue his Pizza Hut commercial, one of many visual storytelling aids used in the show, projection design by Gil Sperling). When Bethany contacts him via Facebook for tickets to one of his shows, Minhaj, in a stroke of startling immaturity, denies her tickets, saying that photos would probably be taken and it wouldn't be a good fit. He then slams his water bottle to the floor ("BAM!") like he's making a touchdown, eliciting cheers from the youngish audience members.
Minhaj is too smart to let things go at that, though. He's in character, after all, when he acts like his less wise self. Forgiveness, his father tells him after the Facebook incident, is what's needed in such cases. Minhaj understands, and he admits that he's been "a dick" to people who cared about him. More his own man now, it seems Minhaj doesn't care quite as much what people think about him. Maybe "king" is a little premature, but he's definitely a comedic prince onstage.
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