ROCK SPRINGS — The 60 or so people who attended the Rock Springs performance of “Hot Tamale Louie” — a jazz ensemble composition based on the life of late Sheridan cafe owner Zarif Khan — at the Broadway Theater on Friday April 12 appeared to have a good time, clapping along with a western ballad and swaying to a ragtime riff.
It didn’t seem to matter that few, if any, in the audience had read the sweeping New Yorker saga written by Kathryn Schulz upon which the multi-media musical event was based, or knew of the immigrant-to-riches life in Wyoming and the brutal 1964 death of Zarif “Hot Tamale” Khan.
“I read about the show on Facebook and the word tamale caught my eye because I’m Hispanic and I like tamales,” said Sandra Delao, who attended with her husband from nearby Green River. But once in the theater she was impressed by Khan’s story: an American dream realized in Sheridan, nearly ruined by racist 19th century American immigration policies and finally ended on a dusty road in a violent distant land.
Jan Torres of Rock Springs also said it was on an internet posting where she learned of the free show, sponsored by the Wyoming Arts Council, the city of Rock Springs, the Broadway Theater and the Sweetwater Board of Cooperative Education. But she noted the contemporary importance of the immigration theme. “Right now it is really relevant, something we need to remember,” Torres said.
But no one appreciated the show more than Zarif Khan Jr. and his twin sons Usman and Suliaman, who sat beaming in the front rows of the old downtown theater in Rock Springs. The three men attended all four Wyoming performances — Gillette, Powell, Rock Springs and Laramie between April 10-13.
At the conclusion of the April 13 performance at the University of Wyoming they presented the show’s writer and director, University of Iowa professor and musician John Rapson, with a bronze replica of the sculpture of Zarif Khan that was recently installed in his honor on Grinnell Plaza in Sheridan, not far from the former location of his beloved cafe, “Hot Tamale Louie’s.”
Rapson, a veteran musician and music ethnologist, was under treatment for breast cancer when he read Schulz’s story, “Citizen Khan,” which inspired him to write and compose the show. He describes the production as a “jazz tone poem with images and silent movie script.” He assembled a group of eight accomplished musicians, with himself on piano, and began performing it in Iowa City on the university campus and at the annual jazz festival.
The show includes a slideshow of historical Wyoming scenes and two spoken interludes that explain the complicated history of American immigration policy and the strange tale of how Afghan immigrants, like Khan, came to dominate tamale traffic in the American mountain west.
To some Wyoming residents, the show might seem a little hackneyed, especially when it comes to portraying in music and words “the wind-swept plain.” But Oklahomans still celebrate the eponymous Rodgers and Hammerstein production even though they would be hard-pressed to find “corn as high as an elephant’s eye” in the Sooner state. Over a beer after the April 12 show, Rapson said he knew he was taking a risk when he brought the show to Wyoming.
But none of that seemed to bother those who attended the production in Rock Springs, especially Zarif Khan Jr. and his two sons. For the Khans, part of a huge clan descended from the original Zarif Khan who have lived and thrived in Wyoming for generations, the story of their family patriarch, both in its written and musical form, is a validation of their place in the greater American story.
Zarif Jr., 63, is the oldest son of the original “Tamale Louie” Khan. He grew up in Sheridan and now owns hotels in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, including the Days Inn in Sheridan. Usman and Suliaman, both 33, spend their childhoods in Sheridan where they won state wrestling championships for Sheridan High School in 2002 and 2003.
“I like it because it reminds people that we all come from some place, many of our parents and our grandparents came from somewhere else,” said Zarif.
“It’s important to show that not every Muslim is a bad guy,” said Suliaman, who said he experienced some anti-Muslim backlash after the Twin Towers attack in 2001. “Even some of the guys we would wrestle would say ‘I’m going to beat this guy for my country,'” he recalled.
The musical production ends with the closing lines of Schulz’s marvelously layered New Yorker article:
“Over and over, we forget what being American means. The radical premise of our nation is that one people can be made from many, yet in each new generation we find reasons to limit who those ‘many’ can be — to wall off access to America, literally or figuratively. That impulse usually finds its roots about who we used to be, but nativist nostalgia is a fantasy. We have always been a pluralist nation, with a past far richer and stranger than we choose to recall.”
In the Rock Springs audience, obviously moved by the show, was Usman Humayan, 21, a recent mechanical engineering graduate of the University of Wyoming who works at the nearby Jim Bridger Power Plant. Humayan is from Multan, Pakistan and is considering applying for American citizenship.
The story of Zarif Khan, who had his hard-won American citizenship ripped away from him under under a bizarre interpretation of the infamous 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, did not seem to dissuade him. Nor does the anti-Muslim rhetoric of a nativist American president.
“Pakistan has a lot of its own problems these days,” he said.