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Theatre in Review: American Dreams (Working Theater)

Jens Rasmussen, Ali Andre Ali, Imran Sheikh, Andrew Aaron Valdez, and Leila Buck. Photo: Cherie B. Tay.

Who better than Working Theater to delve into the tortuous American way of immigration? Despite our national ambivalence -- I'm being polite here - about this issue, we depend on immigrant labor, an inconvenient fact from which we continuously shield ourselves when not indulging in fevered fantasies of criminals and parasites robbing us of our tax dollars and way of life. Our fear of outsiders seems matched only by our need for their assistance. Thus, a play about immigration is also about workers, and if Leila Buck's script is more than a little bumpy, it gets at some ugly truths in need of discussion in this annus horribilis of 2020.

I hasten to add that American Dreams has been produced in partnership with a panoply of companies that includes Round House Theatre, Salt Lake Acting Company, Marin Theatre Company, HartBeat Ensemble, The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, and the University of Connecticut's Thomas J. Dodd Center. The play was also co-commissioned by ASU Gammage and Texas Performing Arts, with support from the JKW Foundation. As always in the theatre, it takes a village -- at the very least.

Not that American Dreams puts its best foot forward. For one thing, there's that shopworn title, with its too-obvious irony; for another, there's the satirical use of a game-show format, a gambit by now so stale that there is seemingly little juice to be squeezed from it. Here, the playwright reimagines the process of obtaining citizenship as a smiley-faced competition that combines elements of, among other things, the Miss America Pageant, reality television, and Jeopardy! In it, three hopefuls compete against each other for a single citizenship slot. Ostensibly presented as a fun, uplifting entertainment, it's really an exercise in extended cruelty. As the announcer proclaims at the beginning, "It's game, it's a show, it's America!"

Pitted against each other in the contest for that US passport are Adil Akram Mansour, a Christian Palestinian chef; Alejandro Rodriguez, a Mexican raised in the US and a veteran medic in the Texas National Guard; and Usman Bhutt, a Pakistani illustrator. In a just world, all three would be prime candidates for citizenship; here, they are put through a series of increasingly humiliating paces, trading their dignity for a safe and prosperous place to live.

The first portion of American Dreams -- employing a standard Q&A format - is standard stuff, relying too heavily on the shock value of this manifestly unfair competition. Even when the actino is obvious and heavy-handed, however, Jens Rasmussen and Buck (the author) are thoroughly effective as the relentlessly cheerful, perfectly insincere hosts, and the graphics, by projection designer Katherine Freer, are just as creepy and tasteless as the occasion demands. (The same goes for the music, especially a tacky country-western arrangement of "This Land is Your Land," supplied by sound designer Sam Kusnetz.) Still, everyone seems to be marking time; one waits for American Dreams to dig a little deeper.

And indeed, when the questions get more personal and an interactive element is introduced, the satire grows some very sharp teeth. The contestants get put into "the hot seat," where their motivations and ideas are examined, and audience members, seen on Zoom, are invited to offer thumbs-up-or-down responses, as if seated in the Roman Coliseum circa 25 AD. The desperately eager-to-please Usman's devotion to Islam is put under the microscope, and his increasingly panicked answers induce a major case of flop sweat. Alejandro's life decisions are scrutinized mercilessly, as are his opinions about, say, football players taking a knee. (This is an especially deft piece of knifing: His conservative answer, possibly tailored to please his questioners, gets a chilly reception, leaving him looking exposed and intolerant.) Adil is all but trapped into saying something negative about Israel and the two-state solution, in what seems a concerted effort to prove that he has a massive chip on his shoulder. At moments like these, the mirror is turned on us in the audience, casting a most unflattering light on our casual prejudices and unearned feelings of exceptionalism. We are implicitly asked: Who do we think we are?

Tamilla Woodard's direction -- she is also billed as co-creator with Rasmussen having a hand in the stage production -- goes a long way toward keeping the satire sharp; the rest of the cast, including Ali Andre Ali's composed but wary Adil; Imran Sheikh's heartbreaking Usman; and Andrew Aaron Valdez's intent, cagey Alejandro are all first-rate; the same goes for India Nicole Burton as the deputy director of culture for the US government, who presides over the action with a twinkle in her eye and a subtly bullying manner. It's not easy putting together these online productions on a shoestring, but Stacey Derosier's lighting, Kerry McCarthy's costumes, and Ryan Patterson's scenery are all pro contributions.

It all culminates in a final vote that -- even if it doesn't involve the sorts of atrocities, like separating children from parents, that we have become used to hearing about -- makes blindingly clear how cruel and arbitrary the immigration system is. American Dreams isn't the strongest offering we've seen from this fine company, but give it time: It has something to say. One can only hope that the price these contestants pay is worth the reward of living in a country as intolerant as this one sometimes seems to be.--David Barbour

(American Dreams is available at the Working Theatre website, theworkingtheater.org, through October 25.)


(15 October 2020)

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