Throughout the run of The Jungle Book, we’ll be getting to know the cast through a series of interviews with the people that make up this crazy talented ensemble. We recently spoke to Usman Ally, who plays Bagheera. Check back weekly for new posts, and if you haven’t already, buy your tickets to The Jungle Book now, before it’s sold out!
||Ally in rehearsals for
The Jungle Book
Are you a fan of the film version of The Jungle Book? Did you have a favorite character or song? A childhood memory of the movie?
Yes I was a fan of the film. I remember watching it as a child living in Botswana. My parents seemed to have no problem with me putting on the VHS we owned and spending many hours watching it over and over. I think they probably were pleased that I was watching a cartoon about a little Indian boy set in India...perhaps they thought it would get me interested in our part of the world! I loved the film, and I think I was the only little boy whose favorite character was Bagheera. While all my friends were in love with Baloo, or wanted to be Mowgli, I was busy saying, “But look at Bagheera, he’s so wise and calm!” I absolutely loved him, and it’s amazing that now so many years later I can create the role for the stage. It’s a great gift.
What about this role most terrifies you? What most delights you?
I don’t think anything really “terrifies” me about playing any role. I think there are certain challenges that come with creating something new, and I’m excited to start figuring out what works and what doesn’t. If anything I would say that finding the ideal physicality is one of the more difficult challenges in playing the role, and also combining the wise nobility of Bagheera from the Kipling stories with the “straight man comic” nature of Bagheera from the Disney cartoon. These challenges are what really delight me about playing the role.
What should audiences expect when they come see The Jungle Book?
Really good story telling that combines excellent acting, amazing artistry in set, costumes, choreography and music. I think it will be a complete theatrical experience that will hopefully bring out the inner child in adults as well as engage younger audience members.
What is it like working with Mary?
I’ve had the privilege of working with Mary once before on the remount of Metamorphoses and once on the remount of The Arabian Nights. Working on The Jungle Book has been an entirely different experience because we are creating something completely new. One of Mary’s greatest skills is that she has such a keen eye for seeing the bigger picture. She can track the narrative so well in her head, that often times she is far ahead of you when it comes to making the right choices to tell the story clearly. It has been a very open experience so far, and all of us have been given the opportunity to collaborate and provide our own input. She has displayed a lot of trust in her team, and that is something that goes a long way in building a good working relationship. It has been a blast so far.
Why did you want to play Bagheera in The Jungle Book?
Frankly, I just wanted to be involved in some way! But as I said earlier, Bagheera had always been a favorite character of mine. He is just so smart, so ahead of everyone else and so aware of how the world works. He displays a great deal of empathy for those around him, yet never loses his composure and is always ready to take the lead. He also has such a dry sense of humor and wit that I can relate to, and I love being able to play opposite such a loud and rambunctious character such as Baloo. I have also never been in a show with a child actor, and I thought it would be quite fun to play the bigger brother/guardian to Mowgli. Bagheera has a lot of depth; there is a lot going on behind his eyes and that is something that really attracted me to the role.
What’s been your favorite part of the process so far?
Watching André De Shields play King Louie. He is exceptional! I've also really enjoyed creating a sense of community with all the different artists in the room. There is so much talent and ingenuity around us...it's pretty powerful.
Favorite part about working at the Goodman and/or in Chicago?
Chicago is my theater home—I love working here for so many reasons. This is my Goodman debut and I couldn’t be happier to be here. The best thing about working for the Goodman is experiencing the artistic integrity and history that lives and breathes in the building. It is such a unique place.
Favorite professional role/production you were in?
I’ve had the honor of fantastic roles in my professional career, but if I had to pick one I would have to say Amir in Disgraced, which had its world premiere at American Theater Company here in Chicago. It was an intensely personal experience for me, garnered me a Jeff nomination and it was highly satisfying helping create a play that went on to win the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.
Favorite Richard Sherman song and why?
“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Why? I just remember trying to say it over and over when I was a kid. It was either that or “I Wanna Be Like You,” but the monkeys kind of scared me when I was a kid so I had to go with the former!
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