The shuttle bus between my former apartment and downtown San Francisco made a stop at an international art school. I often overheard passengers grilling each other on citizenship questions and wondered A) how many of my friends would know the answers and B) whether being able to recite the preamble would really make someone a better neighbor. Leila Buck’s new play American Dreams was an opportunity to revisit those thoughts through the stronger lens of our current political climate in which becoming — even BEING — an American is harder than ever. Attendees play the role of the audience at a government run game show in which three contestants compete for citizenship. Part Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and part Hunger Games, the experience is both illuminating and terrifying.
Hosted by former Special Ops vet Chris (Jens Rasmussen) and code-switching Lebanese-American Sherry (Leila Buck), American Dream the game has four rounds. Competing for a rightful place in our society are three charming men representing populations largely held in suspension by our current administration. Adil (Ali Andre Ali) is a Palestinian cafe owner who uses discarded food to create welcoming meals for his customers. Usman (Imran Sheikh) is a Pakistani Muslim and US college graduate who longs to be a cartoonist. And Alejandro (Andrew Valdez) is a recently deported former National Guard medic who had been brought to this country’s a child by his Mexican mother. Buck provides each with a rich backstory that echoes those heard throughout our country. As the competition goes on, more controversial details surface while a largely white affluent audience is asked to pass judgement. Periodically, we vote in an online poll. (And what could be more American than voting???) We are guided by Deputy Director of Culture for the U.S., Bree, (India Nicole Burton) and an offscreen tech advisor known as Molly. An animated applause sign is used to prompt clapping, though at more emotional moments it is made gloriously redundant.
“You are Exactly Where You Need to Be” assures the automated message in the virtual lobby. Audience members are literally enrolled in the process with a pre-show questionnaire covering their ancestry and thoughts about what makes a productive member of our society. To get the most from the evening, it is suggested that you use headphones and keep your video on. The first few people through the “door” are asked if they’d be willing to be on-camera delegates, performing at critical moments in the show within a show. I was partnered with Alejandro in the pop culture segment. That I felt exhilarated when I helped him get the right answer is both a testament to the structure Buck and team have built and a natural outcome of the helplessness I feel daily in the face of our national immigration crisis.
The work is a collaborative effort created and developed by Buck and director Tamilla Woodard with Jens Rasmussen in collaboration with Osh Ghanimah, Imran Sheikh and the Company. The newly launched live online production was developed and produced by Working Theater to be hosted by various theaters who will coordinate post-show town hall discussions. Director Woodard has strategically staged the piece for Zoom, making it logical for actors to be in their own bubbles. She also utilizes audience faces as a startling backdrop as they slug wine, eat dinner, and fiddle with their Zoom controls all while giving a casual thumbs up or down to someone else’s life choices. Katherine Freer’s video with virtual performance design by ViDCo ran relatively flawlessly and the unfortunate audio issues did not detract significantly from the taut atmosphere. The patriotically painted set by Ryan Patterson and jingly music and soundscape designed by Sam Kusnetz capture the game show vibe that is the hideously inappropriate vehicle for a life-altering decision.
Peppered with humor and enhanced by vivid storytelling, American Dreams is a nearly perfect piece in which to immerse yourself in the days leading up to the election. Working Theater and their theatrical and cultural partners are to be congratulated for bringing this work into our homes. Participation is all the more jarring at this time when our democratic systems are being tested and some have forgotten what it is that holds us together as a nation. You are strongly encouraged to stay through the end credits which graciously acknowledge the Indigenous Peoples who are solely entitled to call themselves Natives of this land.
Live online 90 minute performances run through November 15, 2020. Visit individual websites for ticketing information.
September 26: ASU Gammage
October 2-3: Texas Performing Arts
October 5-11: Round House Theatre
October 14-18: Salt Lake Acting Company
October 20–25: Working Theater
October 27-Nov 1: HartBeat Ensemble, The Bushnell and UCONN
November 10-15: Marin Theatre Company
A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored – Live Stream
January 6th will never again be just a date, but rather an historic occurrence. Some consider what happened in 2021 to be the most serious attack against democracy. Others saw brave patriots who took action when they felt those same institutions had betrayed them and their leader. A third group finds the entire episode to be just so much more political blah-blah-blah that has nothing to do with them. All of these viewpoints are presented by the unreliable narrator and sole character in Roland Tec’s A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored, a live Zoom-based theatrical event.
A ticket to this happening comes with precise instructions. We have volunteered for a citizen panel. Check-in is at 7:45 PM and while the piece will conclude by 9:00PM we are requested to stay for “processing”. In order to participate fully, we will keep our cameras and microphones on and wear headphones to eliminate extraneous noise. (I further recommend using the Full Screen mode and Do Not Disturb to block out any notifications.) After hearing his story, our judgement of “the subject” will be legally binding.
These directions set the expectation for a serious and intense engagement with the solitary character, Benj. Eery music and distant voices that we hear upon entry only heighten the mood. As portrayed by writer Tec, Benj is an attempt to create an Everyman in what is becoming the everyday experience of many. Shot at a slight diagonal, this man clearly needs to clean house in all the meanings of that phrase. His headphones are askew and there’s a ladder and a towel behind him hinting at a mess beyond. COVID has kept him home alone more than at any time in his life. Most of his news is delivered through social media. New connections are only made online, where it is often hard to tell who is genuine and who is a bot. The valley has never been more uncanny than in Benj’s landscape.
As directed by Leigh Strimbeck, Benj speaks in a manner that alternates between rushed and halting. He shares his circumstances just before and shortly after the actions that took place on January 6th, with asides that give insight into his personal life. How deeply you are touched will depend on how well you are managing your own feelings.
The distractions are many. Chat has been left open, which allows for some important intervention but also unnecessary prattle. One of the disadvantages of conversations over Zoom is that the highlighted speaker is the loudest instead of the most important. With over 30 microphones open, those featured including a man with a persistent cough, a woman making clattering noises, and several very personal laughs. Perhaps this is meant as a metaphor for how easily our attention is diverted from discomfort. How deeply can we ever react to something on a screen? But there is no question that the technical set-up made it difficult to remain fully absorbed in what we had been told was a civic duty.
The section that leaves a lasting impression is the post show discussion, which on the night I attended was led by retired psychologist Henry “Hank” Greenspan, a playwright/historian whose work focuses on survivors of genocide. Our audience was less invested in whether Benj should suffer any consequence than in finding productive outlets for their own grief and discouragement. Reactions were only partially to the play and the rest to very real life. One woman pointed out that her feelings are not nagging at all, but in her face screaming 24/7.
That a short work like A Nagging Feeling Best Not Ignored could bring forth that level of emotion at this time of perpetual overwhelm is noteworthy. And while there are problems with Zoom, it does allow for sharing of the work across the country. There is one more scheduled opportunity to be a witness on Wednesday, September 7, at 8PM. Tickets are $22.50 and can be purchases on Eventbrite at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/302460416247.