Laughing and singing about immigrants

Apart from immigration, Alan Cumming also tackles ageing and men's behaviour towards women in his show, Legal Immigrant.
Apart from immigration, Alan Cumming also tackles ageing and men's behaviour towards women in his show, Legal Immigrant.PHOTO: PHIL TOLDEO

Tony-winning actor Alan Cumming, a native Scotsman, has a new cabaret show to mark his 10th year as an American citizen

WASHINGTON • Every couple of years, Alan Cumming craves an undertaking so daunting that utter failure is a realistic possibility.

"That's why I do it," the Tony winner says through nervous laughter. "It's so weird."

So Cumming, 53, decided to perform his new cabaret show, Legal Immigrant, twice a night, five nights a week, for two weeks last month in Manhattan.

The routine: an 8.45pm performance on the Upper East Side, then a hurried jaunt to the East Village for a midnight show.

"That was just too much," Cumming says. "When we were in the middle of the run, I remember I said to my therapist, 'Why am I doing this? Why?'"

The toll is understandable. A nearly two-hour cabaret marking 10 years since the native Scotsman became an American citizen, Legal Immigrant is packed with song, dance and emotional stories about the immigrant experience.

While the Season 2 renewal of Cumming's CBS drama Instinct will keep the veteran actor busy for the foreseeable future, he is still touring Legal Immigrant.

How do you find the energy to continue performing so prolifically on stage and screen?

Ahem, well, you know, if you had asked me this morning, I would not have been in the same state of mind to say what I'm going to say now.

It's about just the work ethic. I do it because I really enjoy it and when I don't enjoy it, I can just stop - I can do something else.

What was the inspiration behind Legal Immigrant?

The biggest motivation was when I discovered that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services had removed the phrase "nation of immigrants" from their website.

I was gobsmacked by that. It was a game-changer for me. I can't believe that more people are not taking to the streets about this.

I imagine this show evolves as the news cycle develops.

Yes, that's actually what is quite daunting about doing it.

When we started doing it at the beginning of May, the whole "children being wrenched from their parents' arms and put in these concentration camps" was not an issue.

So that was something I had to encounter in the show, but actually, it's only a continuation of what I'm saying.

I feel that everything that is happening is just actually magnifying what my point is - that this is going to get worse and worse and it's actually so counterproductive to what the whole ethos of this country is supposed to be.

How do you keep the show's tone upbeat while addressing such heavy subject matter?

I should point out (the show) is actually hilarious. It's very funny.

I talk about some stories that don't have anything to do with immigration, really.

I talk about ageing a little bit and I manage to talk about the way we men are changing our perception of how we behave towards women.

It's still an old-fashioned cabaret - I sing songs, I make you cry, I make you laugh. It's all over the place and eclectic in terms of the tone and the material.

What do you hope audiences take away from Legal Immigrant?

I want them to feel alive. And mostly, I want them to go away thinking: "Wow, huge things about the very fabric of what this country is are being changed in front of us, and history is being rewritten in front of our eyes."

The whole notion of immigration, of people who are refugees or would-be immigrants or people who are different to us - the "other" - that's who we're being told to fear and to cage and to not let near us.

And that's just racism. That's just absolutely the definition of racism. So let's be careful.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2018, with the headline 'Laughing and singing about immigrants'. Print Edition | Subscribe