Anyone who has gone through US immigration (or loves someone who has) knows what a nerve-racking experience it can be. So I was not surprised to feel flashbacks of anxiety while watching Working Theater’s production of Leila Buck’s American Dreams, which brutally reimagines the immigration process as a game show. This stealthily wrenching interactive play is now performing evenings and matinees in your living room through the dismal magic of Zoom, the video conferencing platform I would gladly relinquish forever for a COVID-free world.
Buck initially wrote American Dreams for the stage, and it was presented at Cleveland Public Theatre in 2018. But like so much of our world, the play has been adapted for the Internet. It has taken to the transition better than most, with the stultifying control of the Zoom boxes reinforcing the play’s Orwellian qualities. In the age of the reality TV presidency, it doesn’t feel beyond the pale to turn the citizenship process into a televised event: We’ve already violated that boundary when it comes to dating (The Bachelor), finding shelter (House Hunters), and building a career (any number of reality talent contests). With American Dreams, Buck and director Tamilla Woodard wander one step further into the realm of The Hunger Games. Gladiatorial cruelty is presented in a cheery red, white, and blue package — leaving us all feeling complicit in the American carnage.
Much of the evening’s aggressive Team America™ spirit comes from the playwright herself and Jens Rasmussen (who helped develop the play alongside Osh Ghanimah, Imran Sheikh, and the rest of the current company). They portray the show’s hosts, Sherry and Chris, who ask our three international contestants a series of questions to determine which of them will walk away with the grand prize: American citizenship. They are acting under the purview of Bree Coffman (India Nicole Burton), a representative of the federal government charged with democratizing the immigration process by asking “the people” (that’s us) to choose our newest citizen. Throughout the play, we are polled on which contestant we find most worthy, a decision Buck has smartly calibrated to make as difficult as possible.
There’s Adil (Ali Andre Ali), a Palestinian chef who opened a farm-to-table restaurant with an adjacent soup kitchen in Bethlehem. We also meet Usman (Imran Sheikh), a Pakistani cartoonist and Star Trek superfan. Rounding out the trio is Alejandro (Andrew Aaron Valdez), a former National Guard medic whose family brought him from Mexico when he was 5, and who was deported following a routine traffic stop (he is what our politicians would call a “Dreamer”). Each of them answers questions about US government (drawn from the actual USCIS civics test), participates in a talent segment, and endures a grilling from Sherry and Chris meant to expose and irritate the most sensitive aspects of their identities. In content, it’s not far removed from the actual treatment to which we subject all of our aspiring citizens.
Director Woodard gives that content a form that is perhaps more honest than reality. Ryan T. Patterson’s red, white, and blue sets bloodcurdlingly scream America, and they provide for high contrast between the various boxes in Katherine Freer’s complex, ever-moving, yet clearly laid-out video design (virtual performance design by Vidco). Kerry McCarthy’s stylish off-the-rack costumes feel appropriate for both a game show and an interview at Federal Plaza (although some of the patterns read poorly onscreen). Sam Kusnetz’s sound is the MVP design element, with nervous quiz music underscoring key points in the show. It hypes our adrenaline and forces us to feel just a fraction of the anxiety of our three contestants, all of whom seem to have angry armed guards lingering just off-camera.
Despite their obvious stress, the three performers exude the enthusiasm one would expect from game-show contestants, expressed through flag-waving sincerity. Sheikh is the most natural improvisationalist in the cast. He endows Usman with childlike optimism. You almost don’t want him to win, if only because you suspect that he is liable to fall into the giant chasm between his expectations and the realities of American life. Playing the character who is least expected to be in this situation, Valdez portrays Alejandro with a patriotism that feels more brittle, like a thin coat of hardened caramelized sugar. Despite his obvious handicaps in competing from the occupied West Bank, Ali’s Adil is the most unflappable of the bunch, answering each question like he’s Pete Buttigieg on Fox News. One gets the sense that were he to win, he would be running for Congress within the decade. Conversely, a loss would be shattering.
But citizenship, as it stands, isn’t about who is the most deserving or likely to make a positive difference in our country. A lot of it has to do with where you are born and to whom. And when it comes to naturalization, a significant amount depends on chance. American Dreams tells that story in a manner that is both highly entertaining and horrifying — a combination we know all too well in 2020.