Working Theater’s ‘American Dreams’ is witty take on US immigration

American Dreams
Marin Theatre Company/Courtesy

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In the current political landscape, conversations surrounding immigration remain both controversial and incredibly important. Working Theater’s newest play, “American Dreams,” succeeded at being just that. Presented as a game show run by the fictitious North American Transportation Security and Immigration, the show was an investigation of what it truly means to be an American, assessing the values of the American people and the current immigration system. 

The three contestants, chef Adil (Ali Andre Ali), artist Usman (Imran Sheikh) and Alejandro (Andrew Aaron Valdez), who is both a poet and a doctor, all had their own reasons for seeking a home in the United States, hoping to gain citizenship. The game show’s hosts, Sherry (Leila Buck) and Chris (Jens Rasmussen), guided the contestants through three rounds of questions to determine a winner that the audience helped decide, quizzing the contestants on their knowledge of how America works, what Americans like and the contestants’ own skills. 

The game show’s shenanigans sought to illuminate the absurdity of the American immigration system as it currently exists. Presenting three qualified people, two are turned away in favor of the audience’s arbitrary definitions of being an American after the contestants discuss how they could make the country better as citizens. 

With the audience existing as voting delegates, deciding which of the contestants will receive citizenship and get to live out the titular American dream, the show was highly immersive at every opportunity. The performance began with Bree (India Nicole Burton), who acted as a cheery facilitator engaging the audience and hosts in delightful commercial breaks. Every viewer was encouraged to have their camera on and participate in some capacity, masterfully preserving the audience interaction element of a live show even in a virtual theater format. 

In many cases, the actors improvised these virtual crowd interactions with ease. At different points of the play, Sheikh drew an audience member’s dream and the contestants read aloud what the viewers said one should promise to a country they immigrate to. The show was thoroughly immersive; from dystopian-sounding pre-show announcements to an eerie final scene, the harsh reality of immigration was on display for audiences to witness firsthand. In this way, the energy levels of the audience and the performers remained high the entire time, both groups’ excitement feeding off of one another.

“American Dreams” also took many opportunities to poke fun at the patriotism that often exists within the American national identity. The game show format itself was distinctly reflective of traditionally American values. The questions asked by the hosts — such as if one of the contestants, who practiced Islam, would be loyal to his religion or his country — were inappropriate, but entirely mirroring the rhetoric of some Americans’ suspicion of immigrants. The actors hit all of these moments wonderfully, recognizing their poignance. 

Similarly, the play succeeded at capturing the personal nature of immigration. Fear of the officers who were monitoring the show was only a glimpse into immigrants’ persistent fear of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. The urgency portrayed by each contestant — their fear of messing up a question or being looked upon unfavorably by the audience members — is painted to emulate the current system as we know it. 

Everything in this play sought to unpack the very systems Americans use to determine what their national identity looks like — and why these systems even exist in the first place. Above all else, this show presented how the American immigration system is flawed and in need of reform: It holds too much power over those who seek to start new lives as Americans.

Caitlin Keller covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @caitlinkeller20.