Alan Cumming is an actor, author, singer, comedian, and social activist. He has starred in myriad films, won awards for his theater performances, and written a best-selling memoir and several children’s books. He is also an immigrant. And it is that fact around which he created his one-man show Legal Immigrant.
Born in Aberfeldy, Perthshire, Scotland, Cumming came to the United States in the late 1990s to play Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret on Broadway and never left. He settled in New York City, and in 2008 he became an American citizen.
Through the years, Cumming has always been a proud transplant. But in today’s world, being an immigrant carries a negative association.
Legal Immigrant explores — through song, dance, and humor — what it’s like to live in America these days, when the concept of “the Other” as enemy is so inflamed. “It’s only just over 400 years since English-speaking people came here,” Cumming said in a recent interview with the Independent. “It’s such a short time in history since everyone was an immigrant. It’s a very young country, so to be suddenly turning on yourself
— it’s just so sad. The emotion of immigration itself is what has always been at the heart of America.”
During our chat, Cumming spoke about the impetus for the show, audience reactions, and why immigration has become so topical. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Tell me about your cabaret show. It’s 10 years since I became a citizen of America. And so [this show is] to talk about that and how that experience has changed.
I called it Legal Immigrant because I don’t really think it matters anymore what prefix you use before the word “immigrant” — just the notion of immigration itself has been so denigrated. The [impetus] for me was when I read that the U.S. Immigration Services had removed the phrase “nation of immigrants” from its website, which I thought was weird and huge and historical. And so I talk about how I feel about that, about the fact that I’m always going to be Scottish first. I also talk about getting older and other things. But mostly I wanted it to be a celebration of immigration.
“If you elect a clown, you’re going to get a circus.”
When you were doing research for the show, did you find that this is an atypical time regarding immigration? I read an interesting thing recently that during the Second World War after Japan hit Pearl Harbor, Asian people on the subway in New York would wear a sign saying, “I am Chinese.” They felt they had to discern. I feel there have been times when [anti-immigration sentiment was caused by] more extenuating circumstances — the country’s at war, a country invaded us. Now it’s just based on fear.
The president has validated flying your racist flag, so to speak. Totally. The other day, I was in Boston … and I did an interview with a local [news outlet], and the man asked me: “Sum up Trump in one sentence.” And I said, “If you elect a clown, you’re going to get a circus.”
That’s brilliant. I was very proud of myself. [Laughs.] I think we all need to be on guard, let’s not fall into the trap of doing what [the president is] doing, just blaming the Other. We all elected this guy.
I didn’t vote for him. But I’m part of the society that voted for him. Now, how did that happen? How did we get to … the place where this happening?
We have to take responsibility for it. We can’t just throw our heads in the sand. I just think everyone’s shouting at each other now. Nobody’s going to have their mind changed from being shouted at. You have to be kind and listen to people and ask them to see your point of view.
What have people’s responses been to your show? People are very positive about the fact that I’m saying these things. The reason I called it Legal Immigrant is because the whole notion of immigration is off limits now.
In certain places, [the audience has] been quite contentious and noisy. I did a concert in December in West Palm Beach … it got really intense. I got heckled; some man said, “Go back to where you came from.”
And I went, “It’s my show; it’s called Legal Immigrant. You might have expected some chat [about that].” Also, I’m talking about my experience. It’s very interesting that people can’t hear; they just can’t engage with any discussions. That’s what I want: I want people to talk; I want people to discuss things.
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents Alan Cumming Thursday, April 18, 8 p.m., at The Granada Theatre. Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.