Issue 692 : Jan 1–7, 2009
An accomplished improviser and character actor finds his own voice
“You’d believe me if I said I was from Minnesota, right?” asks Charlie Sanders, noting his appearance, at the top of his new solo show. “But if I told you I was raised Muslim, you’d think I was kidding.”
Amazingly, many of his closest friends have never heard these anecdotes about his high-school years spent whirling with Sufi dervishes, his parents’ drug-addled hippie friends and the truly bizarre circumstances of his father’s funeral.
Sanders doesn’t say why he sat on this story for so long—that would be a different one-man show—but the effect is apparent; in the telling, he is less a monologuist than a burst dam. From those opening lines, the piece moves at breakneck speed to a stunning crescendo.
Sanders draws in the audience by recalling, with hilarious acuity, the confusion of his teenage peers in the early ’90s. Spike Lee had just made Malcolm X; when some of the African-Americans at Sanders’s school found out he was Muslim, they accused him of posing, of trying to co-opt something “black.” Then he recited a prayer in perfect Arabic, and they lionized him.
Throughout the evening, Sanders is the anchor among such wildly varying and often opposing emotions coming from the tale’s other characters. He’s the relatable, clear-eyed everyman—which also makes him a keen narrator. The comic wins laughs through composition, by focusing on rhythm and structure rather than by forcing jokes onto the action. In his first storytelling foray, Sanders proves himself a natural with a gift for creating immediacy and a flair for the cinematic.
Indeed, much of Minnesota Muslim plays out like a film (the next Little Miss Sunshine?).
Before the funeral, everyone wants something out of Sanders: His father’s deluded, saccharine ex-girlfriend needs closure; his rigid grandfather demands a commitment to science; his dad’s potentially psychotic best friend craves a fellow outlaw. Our hero just wants to smoke pot.
The piece teems with misguided characters searching for meaning. In spite of this—or perhaps because of it—Sanders offers no message. His disinterest in dogma might mirror a decision to leave behind the religion of his youth (he admits he’s agnostic now).
Or he might agree with Paul Auster, who writes, on the first page of City of Glass: “The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.”
Take away a moral if you like. Or just enjoy the ride.
Picture: STATION OF ISLAM Sanders reconnects with his roots. Photograph: David Rosenzweig.