Asif Majid’s play, “The Cassette Shop,” is inherently a story about people trying to find their place in a society that is often indifferent to them, if not at times hostile. These characters may as well be trying to acclimate to an entirely new world. There is a level of obvious discomfort, fear, and the worry that they will not ultimately be accepted, legally or in a broader, cultural sense. And yet, at the same time, both characters exhibit an amazing reliance upon pure hope.
The actors do a terrific job…The message…is really an important one—especially now, especially today.
The play began life as an extremely compelling idea. Majid and dramaturg Sarah Priddy set out to tell the poignant and sometimes difficult stories of asylum seekers in the DC area. During Covid, they began interviewing asylum seekers—a fitting time to begin an endeavor about, in many senses, isolation and disconnection. However, what they invariably stumbled upon was that many of the stories shared similar threads, similar emotional foundations—they shared, ironically, critical connections.
The production is a two-hander that takes place entirely in Alé’s Cassette Shop, suitably enough. Alé is seeking asylum and waiting for the acceptance of his application. He finds solace in the music contained within the cassettes tapes lining the shelves of his storefront. Enter Luciar, also seeking asylum. Inspired by the music and the tapes in Alé’s shop, Luciar brings us on a quietly profound journey of pain, loss, grief, and also love. Alé too, is given monologue moments during which he tells stories—the story of a family left behind, the story of traditions, and nuanced moments that culminate in an entire cultural heritage. The stories both characters share are hauntingly beautiful, taken verbatim from the asylum seekers interviewed for this project. Theatre Prometheus worked with AsylumWorks, a DC nonprofit that assists asylum seekers.
The plot here is admittedly a little thin. Both Alé and Luciar explore the cassette collection and, upon coming across a meaningful record or song, time is momentarily frozen as they are subsequently transported deep into a memory/monologue. Outside the confines of these freeze frame moments, there is the funny and quirky coming together of these two, very different characters as they experiment with starting a band. There is also the journey toward “acceptance”—interpret that loaded word as you will. More of an overall narrative arc, at least by way of character development, could have helped create greater urgency and dramatic tension that this production otherwise lacks.
The actors do a terrific job of presenting asylum seekers and their stories in the most authentic and respectful way possible. You can immediately tell that Khan and Hanani have set out to embody their respective personae by paying homage to the cultural standards and values that not only make certain individuals unique, but collectively make the world a diversely wonderful place to inhabit.
Lauren Patton Villegas directs the actors through the magical maze that is the cassette shop. Timing and the overall pace seem a little problematic as scenes are rather stiffly executed. The lack of fluidity creates some narrative hiccups that are difficult to overcome. Kudos to set designer Dom Ocampo who transports the audience to a cassette shop, complete with that vintage feel. Projections by Nitsan Scharf also help lend more depth to the performance as a whole and give it that quasi-magical, other-dimension feel. The message “The Cassette Shop” works to convey is really an important one—especially now, especially today. People are meaningfully connected in more ways than we might realize.
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission.
“The Cassette Shop” runs through May 20, 2023, presented by Theatre Prometheus at Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Road SE, Washington, DC. You can find out more about Theatre Prometheus and purchase tickets here. Masks are required during the performance.