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Hasan Minhaj’s “Homecoming King” is a bittersweet ode to growing up desi

The Indian American comedian's foray into theatre puts the desi voice into the popular narrative.

What will people say? This Hindi refrain carries through Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj’s poignant and hilarious off-Broadway play “Homecoming King.”

The one-man show traces Minhaj’s experiences as a first-generation Indian immigrant and touches on everything from generational and cultural clashes to interracial love, racism and bullying.

“Homecoming King” is currently playing at Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City’s West Village—a venue that complements the intimacy of the show itself. When I attended on Thursday night, the crowd was largely and unsurprisingly desi, with a few non-brown faces mixed in. It was clear from the get-go, however, that Minhaj’s story was written first and foremost for Indian Americans.

“Our narrative is missing from popular culture,” he said during a Q&A session immediately following the performance. “Our narrative deserves to be in the book called the American dream.”

And that’s exactly why he decided to call his show “Homecoming King.”

“I didn’t want (the title) to be literal,” he said. “We’re never considered the king of the narrative—of the popular narrative.”

Inside jokes about desi culture elicited raucous laughter from the sea of brown, and the occasional Hindi word or phrase was met with nods of understanding.

“‘Log kya kahenge.’ Scientists have found that every time a brown father says that, a star falls from the sky and crashes and burns.”

While brown fathers were actually the butt of a number of Minhaj’s jokes – “In order to win their love, you have to do a, b, and c. Or rather, A, A, and A!” – his story ultimately focused on his effort to get to know and win the respect of his father. Minhaj explained that he’s felt like a failure for much of his career because his parents expected him to be a doctor or consultant. “I wish I had wanted to work at Deloitte,” he said. “I really do. I really want to make them proud.”

Instead, he became a comedian.

And Minhaj’s background in standup was evident from his interaction with his audience. He started the show by poking fun at the way his non-Indian friends butchered his name, and he called on audience members to offer ridiculous examples of their own name mispronunciations.

“How do you get ‘Saddam Hussein’ from Hasan Minhaj?” he joked. “You’ll never see a white kid being called ‘Adolf Hitler’ by mistake.”

No topic was off-limits for Minhaj. He joked about Indian parents slapping their children, his disastrous experience at high school prom – a story he’s told on The Moth – and even about Hindu-Muslim tensions.

“My dad tells me, ‘Don’t joke about this stuff. People kill each other over this,’” he said. “But I do it anyway.”

[bctt tweet=”Desi Americans are never considered the king of the narrative.”]

When it came to the topic of race, Minhaj’s play took a slightly more serious turn. He explained that while bullying and racism towards Indian kids isn’t explicit, it still exists.

“When I was in third grade, our teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up,” he said. “I said I wanted to be white … The universe was telling me, ‘Hey! You’re different!’ And I just wanted to fit in.”

The rules in Minhaj’s house growing up were simple: no fun, no friends, no girlfriends. So when he snuck out of his second-story window as a high schooler, climbed down the house, and biked to classmate Bethany’s home to pick up her up for prom, he was devastated to see that another guy—a white one—was already there with her.

“We love you,” Bethany’s mother explained to him. “But we have a lot of relatives who are going to see these pictures, and we just don’t think it would be a good fit.”

This experience left Minhaj bitter for years after the fact. And it wasn’t until Bethany got engaged to another Indian man—with a name far more complicated and difficult to pronounce than Minhaj’s—that he finally forgave her.

“It made me realize that I’m the cure! Everyone has a purpose in this universe, and mine is to be the cure for racism!”

After a show as hilarious, poignant and powerful as that, I’m starting to think he might just be.

“Homecoming King” is playing now through Nov. 15 at Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City.