In a different immigration system, a Palestinian chef, a Pakistani cartoonist and a Mexican army medic, who came to the U.S. as a child but was deported as an adult because he lacked updated documents, would have an easier time settling in the country. Prior to the last major overhaul of the U.S. immigration system, which was enacted in 1965, the Johnson administration had sought to reform immigration laws on a merit basis that would emphasize skills over national-origin discrimination, which had heavily favored northern and western Europeans, especially since the 1920s and 1930s. The sentiments for a meritocratic approach also seemed to parallel nicely the dynamics arising from the 1960s civil rights movement, as a feasible way of ending discriminatory practices. However, Democrats in Congress favored prioritizing reuniting families as integral to immigration reform.
But, there are many ironies, a point sociologist John Skrentny, who has studied the history of making immigration laws in the U.S., highlights. He said in a 2017 interview with The Atlantic magazine, that “it’s hard to do merit-based reform now because it’s viewed as anti-Mexican, anti-Latin America, anti-anyone who is benefiting from family reunification now. It would cut into what they have.” He adds, “the current defenders of the family-reunification system are exactly the people that the original proposers of it wanted to exclude.”
Meanwhile, as Americans are inundated with presidential politics for the upcoming elections, millions of people from around the world are signing up for the newest round of the visa lottery. This annual lottery offers foreign residents, with at least a high school education or work experience in a field that requires professional training and who do not have U.S. sponsors, the opportunity to move to the U.S. in 2022 and receive their green cards for permanent residency.
Only 55,000 cards are available in each round but the last round drew 6,741,128 qualified applications from around the world, representing 11,830,707 people including family members or associates. The countries receiving the most visas were Egypt, Iran, Russia and Algeria.
Perfectly timed, the Utah premiere of American Dreams, a virtual theatrical production of a fictional television game show in which three prospective candidates compete for audience votes to win the opportunity to become naturalized citizens, echoes these historical and political realities quite effectively. The immigration system often has operated like a game show with far fewer winners than disappointed foreigners who still believe that it is possible to realize their dreams in the U.S. These tensions and emotions percolate in the American Dreams television show, as they transform the perky lightheartedness of its opening into a sobering, darker tone that compels the viewers (as direct audience participants) to revisit their own thinking about what the country’s immigration system should look like.
Salt Lake Acting Company (SLAC) is presenting American Dreams, written by Leila Buck and directed by Tamilla Woodard, which is a Working Theater production. The play received its world premiere in 2018 at the Cleveland Public Theatre in a conventional live performance with the audience participating as voting delegates. The show has been retooled for its virtual presentation.
SLAC is offering the digital engagement Oct. 14-18, as a gift to its season subscribers and a pay-what-you-can option for single ticket buyers. The production runs 75 minutes and audience members are given numerous opportunities to participate live as well.
The play gets many things right. The three ‘contestants’ are Usman (played by Imran Sheikh), a Pakistani cartoonist who is a Muslim and an avid follower of American pop culture; Adil (Ali Andre Ali), a Palestinian chef whose small restaurant in Bethlehem is a model of social responsibility, and Alejandro (Andrew Aaron Valdez), a Mexican medic who embodies the familiar Dreamer, who came to the U.S. as a child but ended up being deported for not having current documents. The hosts are Chris, a former U.S. Marine (Jens Rasmussen), and Sherry (played by Buck), who has Lebanese roots in her background. Bree (India Nicole Burton) facilitates the virtual broadcast.
The contestants were selected via an exhaustive screening process heavier on accounting for security concerns than their actual abilities. An agency that envisions what the Department of Homeland Security could become, if the political will for it remains unchecked, screens the contestants for American Dreams.
Despite this wall of security, the three likable contestants are optimistic and enthusiastic about their prospects. The show opens with a Jeopardy-style set of questions about American civics, many of which would test the recall of native-born citizens. The only question that trips up the contestants (and, one could safely bet that many Americans would answer incorrectly) is about the order of succession for the presidency after the Vice President and U.S. Speaker of the House.
The second round continues the bouncy game-show vibe (including theme music based on the folk song This Is Your Land) with a format riffing off the Family Feud format. Contestants must answer questions about the polling results of American favorites in various categories. Here, the fictitious show takes on a patronizing attitude that becomes less benign and more troubling as it continues. Wait until the last question in this round, asking the contestants about what is America’s favorite book.
Prior to the start of the play, audience members are directed to fill out a short online survey, asking broad questions about their expectations and perceptions of immigrants. At the end, they also are asked some demographic questions. Throughout the play, audience members have plenty of opportunities to participate directly, including interacting with contestants, and voting in various online polls, especially in the penultimate decision for the show. Thus, the outcome and the experience of the performance will vary by audiences, reflecting variances in demographics and their opinions about immigration along with their own ancestral backgrounds.
During the last two rounds of the game show, the cordial mood begins to crack and the contestants become more tense and defensive, justifiably so. The third round comprises the talent portion of the show. Usman illustrates a dream related by an audience member, while Alejandro shares a poem that resonates with his own feelings about crossing borders. Adil, who runs a farm-to-table restaurant in Gaza and makes sure no food ever goes to waste by giving it to his community, makes a simple salad. Adil’s segment is the most interesting and illuminating up to this point of the show, for its telling glimpses into American arrogance and ignorance.
Meanwhile, the contestants are placed in the hot seat during the final round, as they answer lines of questions that become more pointed. They are interrogated rigorously about their life decisions, their faith and their sincerity of their commitments to American ideals. During this process, audience delegates are asked to vote as periodic “temperature checks” in a process described as asking questions before deciding which one of the contestants is worthy of becoming an American neighbor.
Buck’s writing anchors the backgrounds of the contestants as timelessly emblematic of the struggles immigrants have faced and continue to do so, in the absence of concrete immigration reform. There is a grasp of the issue’s emotional dynamics here that have yet to be resolved. Presidents and Congressional leaders of both parties consistently have punted the task of real immigration reform for decades, despite the acknowledgment that a system created in 1965 is obsolete when the current geopolitical and economic realities of the world have changed entirely. The U.S. has at least 130 million more people than the last time the immigration system has been reformed. As numbers from the Pew Research Center show, the U.S. has more immigrants than any other nation in the world. Since 1965, the number of foreign-born residents has quadrupled and, as of 2018, the foreign-born population topped 44.8 million.
Of course, in the current administration, with a president who ran primarily on antagonizing demonic characterizations of immigrants as criminals or as individuals who steal jobs or would sabotage an American way of life, more Americans have become horrified by the treatment of immigrant families, especially children. However, anti-immigrant rhetoric and movements have marked every era of American history.
American Dreams is a smart show that compels its audiences to assess more critically their own knowledge, perceptions and attitudes about immigration. There is no reason why the American table cannot account for all the Usmans, Adils and Alejandros, among others, who should not have to compete for a chance to become an American when they already have proven their worth and capabilities to realize their own dreams. The only regret about American Dreams is that while it has been adapted effectively to the virtual format, as a live show it definitely has the potential to spark maximum energy and engagement.
The creative team for this production includes Ryan Patterson (scenic design), Kerry McCarthy (costume design), Stacey Derosler (lighting design), Sam Kusnetz (sound design), Katherine Freer (video design) and ViDCo (virtual performance design). Colleen McCaughey serves as production stage manager and Carolina Arboleda is assistant stage manager.
SLAC also is collaborating with the nonprofit Vote Forward, which organizes letter writing campaigns targeted toward under-represented voters across the nation.
Working Theater is the lead producer for the virtual production of American Dreams in partnership with Round House Theatre, SLAC, HartBeat Ensemble, The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, University of Connecticut, and Marin Theatre Company, co-commissioned by Arizona State University and Texas Performing Arts, with support from the JKW Foundation.
Tickets for American Dreams are available at the SLAC website.