This is a show that is made for our times when we have a reality TV show star as the president, and the chaos that has worn us down. Created in 2016 (or at least started to be conceptualized then) by Leila Buck and T. Amilla Woodard, and written by Buck and directed by Woodard, this work asks us what it means to be American, and who should be “allowed” to be American. And, is being an American just another commodity to be won, if you’re lucky?
This is theatre at its best.
This play isn’t afraid to ask the appalling questions and to do so with that all-American wide grin and grit-and-determination stance so mythologized in the American canon. As the game-show audience, we are asked to participate. It’s a harsh reality to discover that while we’re “judging” the three contestants who have staked everything on winning a stab at citizenship, we’re the ones really being judged.
But the presentation is brilliant — it’s a GAME SHOW! We have our floor guide, Bree (a warm and welcoming India Nicole Burton) to let us know when to applaud and when to vote. After all, we have this upbeat, smiling person to reassure us everything’s great.
But this is America, so while there are some uncomfortable — verging on racist and xenophobic — moments, the audience participants get to salve their consciences by being the American lifeline for the contestants during one segment — American Favorites. After all, if you really want to fit into America, it’s important to know what the number one comfort food is.
This show was originally produced in 2018 on stage in Cleveland, and it works very well in a virtual setting. Sherry (Leila Buck) and Chris (Jens Rasmussen, also a co-creator and co-developer) are the hosts of American Dreams, the game show where three contestants are given the chance to make their case directly before a live audience. They hasten to assure us that the three have already been thoroughly vetted by numerous national security agencies.
Adil (Ali Andre Ali), Usman (Imran Sheikh), and Alejandro (Andrew Aaron) are our contestants. They get to answer questions in several categories, give us a sample of their exceptional talent that we might need here, relate their backstory, and get grilled by Sherry and Chris.
The last is the most uncomfortable segment. Certain audience members have been pre-selected to give a thumbs up or thumbs down or a meh hand wave on if they’re believable. Or sincere enough. Or reasonable enough. It’s a subtly brutal segment.
And that’s one of the beauties of this play. It is subtle. You might not think anything presented as a game show could be subtle, but this work is so well-written and taps into the game show mentality perfectly that it all seems plausible. And yet, these are people coming from Palestine (Adil), Pakistan (Usman), and Mexico (Alejandro, although he was brought here as a child and served in the National Guard in a war zone). The contestants come to realize that there’s just no room for anything as complex as their lives.
The cast does an outstanding job mining the humor and absurdity inherent in placing such a life-changing decision in such a trifling context and the discomfort one feels as an audience member creeps up. This is the pre-cursor to a hunger games style of an immigration lottery. The direction is tight. Kudos to the stage manager (Colleen McCaughey), video designer (Katherine Freer), costume designer (Kerry McCarthy), scenic designer (Ryan T. Patterson), sound designer (Sam K. Usnetz), and lighting designer (Stacey Derosier) in seamlessly bringing this vision to life.
This is an important work that asks a couple of big questions and does it with elegance and a dark humor. Having the audience become complicit if just genius. If this doesn’t make one stop and think about what kind of America we want, I’m not sure what can. This is theatre at its best.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
“American Dreams” runs through October 11, 2020 in a virtual environment presented by Round House Theatre. It is co-produced with Working Theater and other national partners. For more information, please click here.