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Do You Care More About the Captor or the Captive?

Date: Dec 15, 2014
Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

Nick Bright, the American investment banker who's kidnapped and held for ransom in Ayad Akhtar's The Invisible Hand, certainly evokes some sympathy. In the play, which is now at New York Theatre Workshop, he has to raise his own ransom by playing the stock market, turning a $3 million investment into $10 million. He endures mercurial treatment at the hands of his kidnappers, plus he's got a wife and 3-year-old back home. Yet despite all this, you may find yourself drawn to Bashir, one of Nick's captors.

Played with a razor sharp edge by Usman Ally, Bashir is British born of Pakistani heritage. "I think the audience gets thrown off by that," says the actor, who also starred in the first production of Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced. "In the first scene they meet [the character] Dar, who speaks English with a Pakistani accent. When they see me they expect me to sound the same, but instead I've got this middle-class English brogue."

As Bashir stalks the stage, spitting out Britishisms like "dirty old geezer," the audience gets fleeting information about his past and what turned him into toward militancy. But Ally's performance never falls to caricature: Bashir's anger, disenfranchisement, and angst are all very real. His student/teacher dynamic with Nick, from whom he learns the tricks of the economic trade, is also surprising, and in these scenes Bashir is like that disruptive schoolmate who could be the smartest in the class if only he could manage to control his outbursts. (When he lashes out at his captive, though, we remember just who is in control.)

Ally was born in Swaziland and grew up in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Pakistan. His father, ironically given the circumstances of the play, was a banker. "I was exposed to a lot of accents early on so it was easy to pick up," Ally says. In fact, Ally's cousins live in Hounslow, the London neighborhood where Bashir is from. "I have a clear understanding for who Bashir is," he says. "Growing up outside of the U.S., you get an awareness for U.S. foreign policy. So it was easy to tap into Bashir's intellectual curiosity. He's the kind of character that might be easy for a mainstream American audience to dislike because he represents a lot of what they are scared of, so it was important to me to make him sympathetic and likable."

Ally achieves this on multiple levels, and he finds humor in unexpected places, like when Nick teaches Bashir about economic tenets such as a financial "edge."

"The main thing in preparing to play Bashir was trusting the character and trusting that he is brilliant in some ways," says Ally. "He's smart and charismatic and honest, and he believes in what he is doing because to him it is completely logical. My job is to make the audience understand that."


Eliza Bent is a playwright and reporter based in Brooklyn

Photo by Joan Marcus