Originally Published in The Washington Post
Celia Wren - October 8, 2020
Created by Leila Buck and Tamilla Woodard, and directed by Woodard, “American Dreams” imagines that a televised game show is the sole route to obtaining U.S. citizenship. Taking the form of that game show, the play is on view in a national virtual co-production mounted by a consortium of cultural institutions, led by New York’s Working Theater and including Bethesda’s Round House Theatre. Round House hosts the digital tour’s opening stop, through Sunday.
The proceedings are peppered with polls and “Applause” signs popping up amid animated bursts of stars. So you are implicated, and feel it. Meanwhile, the able actors add humor, liveliness and intensity. Buck, the show’s writer, and Jens Rasmussen (who helped create a stage version that debuted in Cleveland in 2018) play the game show’s initially affable hosts, Sherry and Chris. India Nicole Burton channels a government official.
The competitors are an admirable trio: Adil (Ali Andre Ali, all suavity), a Palestinian chef, runs a restaurant and soup kitchen. Alejandro (an endearing Andrew Aaron Valdez), a Mexican-born Dreamer, was a medic in the U.S. military. Usman (Imran Sheikh, exuding innocence), a Pakistani illustrator, fell in love with diversity after watching “Star Trek.”
Only one contestant can win the prize: immediate naturalization. So for 90 minutes or so, the rivals eagerly navigate the gantlet. They press buzzers to answer questions about U.S. civics. They discuss their backgrounds, and guess at American’s favorite comfort food (pizza!). In a talent-show segment, Alejandro recites a poem he wrote, and Adil whips up a Levantine salad.
The varied format is bracing, as is the interactivity. Recruited audience members — including, at the reviewed performance, yours truly — assist with the winnowing. In the talent section, for instance, a recruit describes a dream, which Usman illustrates. (I helped out with Q&As.) The audience votes for the winner.
En route to that climax, in an effective touch, the show’s mood turns grimmer. Of course, the serious gist of “American Dreams” is there all along, embedded in the premise: The cruelty of a citizenship game show isn’t such a conceptual stretch, especially under an administration that has pursued ruthless anti-immigration policies.
If the play’s subtext is writ large, it’s still true that “American Dreams” makes you soul search. Adil, Alejandro and Usman may be fictional, but choosing whose hopes to dash — whose safety to jeopardize — involves angst, moral reasoning and moving beyond any cozy box of complacency.
American Dreams, written by Leila Buck; directed by Tamilla Woodard; created and developed by Buck and Woodard with Jens Rasmussen, in collaboration with Osh Ghanimah, Imran Sheikh and the company. Video design, Katherine Freer; virtual performance design, ViDCo; scenic, Ryan T. Patterson; costumes, Kerry McCarthy; sound, Sam Kusnetz; lighting, Stacey Derosier. A Working Theater production. Hosted by Round House Theatre through Sunday. Tickets: $30. roundhousetheatre.org.