By the time he was 15, young Saheem Ali had already been bitten by the theater bug, but seeing Grease in London really did him in. As he explained in a reminiscence published last year in The New York Times, Ali’s attempt to re-create that West End version of Grease at his Nairobi high school was his first time directing. He didn’t have the rights, he didn’t have the script (he had to type it from memory), and the teenagers were nontraditionally cast. But that didn’t stop them from putting on a show.
Twenty-five years later, there’s no stopping Ali from realizing his dreams. In recent seasons, his profile has risen as a sensitive director who can balance naturalism and surrealism, particularly in works that deal with queer identity and human rights. He is currently staging Donja R. Love’s new play, Fireflies, at the Atlantic Theater Company.
It’s the second in Love’s trilogy about queer love across the centuries in America. What Should We Do?! caught up with Ali to talk about his extended collaboration with Love, his jetset childhood, and his side hustle in restaurants.
What Should We Do?!: You grew up in Kenya?
Saheem Ali: I was born and raised in Nairobi. I moved to the States for college when I was in my 20s.
WSWD: Your father was a commercial airline pilot. Did you travel a lot with him?
Ali: I did. We got to travel on Kenya Airways quite a bit when I was a kid. I was fortunate enough to go to Europe, to the Middle East. I hadn’t been to America before, but thanks to my dad, I was able to blunt the culture shock.
WSWD: Did you come here specifically to make theater?
Ali: I always knew I wanted to be in the arts. When I came to the U.S., I enrolled as a computer science major at Northeastern University in Boston, because my parents wouldn’t let me study theater. So I did it on the sly for a bit without telling them, but eventually switched my major, because it wasn’t enough for me to just do it as a hobby.
WSWD: Were your parents shocked? Or supportive?
Ali: Well, they’re parents from the developing world who spent a lot of money to send their children to college, so the arts don’t factor very highly in what they feel is a reasonable area of study for their kids. So they weren’t happy. They came around eventually. It was a bit of a battle.
WSWD: What attracts you to directing?
Ali: I started as an actor, so I was acting and directing. As an undergrad, I was directing small plays but also acting in the main-stage shows. There came a point when I realized I didn’t like being an actor in a play with a bad director, but I didn’t mind being a director in a play with a bad actor. Directing is problem-solving and it’s creativity, and I can actually work with someone to try and elevate the piece. But when I was an actor with a bad director, I just felt helpless. I could see the big picture, and how could they not see it?
There came a point when I realized I didn’t like being an actor in a play with a bad director, but I didn’t mind being a director in a play with a bad actor.
WSWD: I read that wonderful essay you wrote for The New York Times, in which you traveled to London with your father and saw a production of Grease in the West End. Then you re-created it from memory at your middle school in Kenya.
Ali: I’d never seen anything like it. It was so visually arresting, and then those actors were just acting their hearts out in ways I’d never seen before, and my impulse was to go back and try and re-create it, you know? I just wanted to reproduce it somehow, and I wanted to be inside of it because I was an actor at the time. And I wanted to be outside of it because I wanted to put all the pieces together.
WSWD: Have you considered turning that experience into a show of its own?
Ali: [Laughs] I haven’t! But I guess it does make a pretty compelling story, because I was bitten. It was such an innocent time; we weren’t even thinking about the race of those actors, the fact that in Grease they all look like white kids from Middle America. And here we were, a group of African kids trying to grease our hair, trying to be the Thunderbirds and all that, and I kind of miss that. The innocence of not being aware of how removed we were from that situation, and it was just passion. It was passion and love for the art that was fueling us.
WSWD: Speaking of passion, you’re directing Donja R. Love’s Love Plays—three history plays about queer love among African-Americans. This spring you directed Sugar in Our Wounds at Manhattan Theatre Club. How did this collaboration start?
Ali: Kate Pines was the literary manager of the Playwrights Realm a couple of years ago, and she sent me Sugar in Our Wounds. I was in Detroit directing the play Dot, and Kate said, “One of our fellows is here. He’s written this play. I think you’d be great for it. Take a read.” And I did, and I was just blown away. Because Sugar felt so matter-of-fact but revolutionary at the exact same moment. I had never considered the fact that two male slaves on a Southern plantation would have fallen in love with each other. So Donja and I had a Skype conversation and hit it off. And we started working on it together. And then he very graciously invited me to work on the next play, and the next, and all of a sudden we were collaborating on the whole trilogy.
“Sugar in Our Wounds” felt so matter-of-fact but revolutionary at the exact same moment. I had never considered the fact that two male slaves on a Southern plantation would have fallen in love with each other.
WSWD: Can you tell me about the second play in the trilogy, Fireflies, which is playing at Atlantic Theater Company?
Ali: It’s set in the fall of 1963, and it involves a couple who are part of the civil rights movement. So there are echoes of MLK and Coretta Scott King in it, but it is very much about the experiences of people who were dealing with the movement and then had to come home and have lives. It gives you a sense of the challenges and the pressure of the movement on the outside, and what that does to the individuals and their relationships. And there’s also the theme of queerness, which exists in all the plays in the trilogy—black queerness. One of the things I love is how the quality of queerness and the definition of it shifts among the three plays. In Fireflies, it exists in a much less overt way than it does in Sugar, but it’s still there. We get to live with this couple over the course of three days, and it’s only two actors, so it’s very domestic.
WSWD: This summer you also had success at the Williamstown Theatre Festival with Dangerous House, by Jen Silverman, which is about violence against the LGBTQ community in South Africa. Is that coming to New York?
Ali: We haven’t heard anything yet. It’s a wonderful play, and we had a really good production at Williamstown. Yeah, we’re hoping.
WSWD: So with Silverman’s play and Love’s plays, you’re carving out a body of work that deals with contemporary queer issues and civil rights.
Ali: I’m from another country. I’m a person of color. And being in America as a person of color, I find myself wrestling with these issues on a daily basis. I’m really interested in pieces that interrogate the idea of identity, in terms of race and in terms of sexual orientation. The intersection of those things is the most interesting to me because of my own personal intersection. So some aspects of identity have to be under interrogation in the piece. That is the common thread in the work and the writers whom I find myself interested in.
I’m really interested in pieces that interrogate the idea of identity, in terms of race and in terms of sexual orientation.
WSWD: Seven years ago, you opened the West Village restaurant Takashi with your partner at the time, chef Takashi Inoue. I was so sorry to hear that he passed away last October. My condolences.
Ali: Thank you. We opened it together. I was just out of grad school and he was a chef who had just moved here from Japan. [After we met and started dating], he asked me to help him open the restaurant. So I took a year off from the theater and I did. I co-own it now.
WSWD: Wow. Director and restaurateur. That’s a short list of people.
Ali: Yeah. It was a really interesting detour. One that I’m glad I took.