Metal detectors. Detailed forms and questionnaires asking for name, religion, country of origin, parents’ countries of origin. Guards pulling certain people out of line for special screening or another go-round with the metal detector. This wasn’t customs or a checkpoint for asylum seekers. It was the pre-show experience for audiences attending Cleveland Public Theatre’s production of American Dreams, which ran there Feb. 8-March 3. CPT and other theatres across the country often work with immigrant or refugee populations in their communities on a variety of programs. But that engagement feels all the more urgent now given the anti-immigrant stance and policies of the Trump administration. Theatres are skilled at dramatizing and narrating the stories of our time. But could they do more? Might they provide space and resources to immigrant or refugee members of their communities in a time of fear and misinformation? Can they act as a gathering and knowledge-sharing space for all members of their community: immigrant, refugee, and U.S.-born? For the creative team of American Dreams, the first step was to reflect a version of the immigrant experience for all audience members, putting those who don’t know it firsthand on an equal footing with those who know it all too well. The pre-show experience with guards profiling some audience members was intentional, said director Tamilla Woodard. “People should witness that as a theatrical device of storytelling,” she said. “We’re doing it as a demonstration, a reflection of the real world.” It’s a visceral way for every audience member to be made aware of how certain people are treated every day. After the pre-show gauntlet, American Dreams imagined a version of the U.S. where citizenship is sought and won on a televised game show, with the attendees at each performance serving as the live studio audience. They were called upon throughout five rounds to assist three contestants in answering questions about American tastes, history, and politics; to provide thumbs-up or thumbs-down responses to contestants’ answers; and to ultimately vote on a winner: the person they wanted to be their new neighbor. Isam Zaiem, an American Dreams audience member and himself an immigrant and civil rights activist, confessed that he didn’t realize how difficult it would be to make a decision. “How do you choose which of the three applicants should have the opportunity to become an American citizen? How do you make such a life-changing decision when every applicant is deserving of that chance?” he wondered rhetorically. That interactivity and indeterminacy is what initially attracted CPT executive artistic director Raymond Bobgan to the project. “There’s something about the audience participation that makes the audience complicit in a way that we already are but don’t recognize,” he said. “Every time we vote, every time we engage, how we respond to Facebook posts, how we give our money when we’re donating—all of these are things that we’re doing that make us complicit in our foreign policy. What this play did was say, ‘We’re going to make that complicity really explicit.’” The main creator of this devised piece was Leila Buck, with support from Woodard and an ensemble of actors who, in creating their characters, drew on personal experiences as well as in-depth interviews with immigrants in the Cleveland area. Born to an American father and a Lebanese mother, Buck spent her youth living in countries in the Arab world, a result of her father’s work with the foreign service. There she experienced “both the privilege of being American and being able to cross borders, and also knowing some of the people who are responsible for deciding who gets across those borders,” she said. Through her personal and professional experiences, though, she’s met people “for whom it is challenging sometimes to be seen as a trustworthy person to be let into our country.” American Dreams was created with that thought in mind. “How do you create a space within the theatre for people to be able to reflect within themselves on how we decide who we trust, who we let in?” Buck said. Isabel Galvez, an immigrant and a Cleveland resident of 23 years, is an active member of CPT’s community, providing translation services and serving on its informal steering committee. Galvez responded to particular moments in American Dreams differently than the U.S.-born audience members—she laughed at one quiz question about the Constitution, because she recognized the quotation as false, while U.S.-born audience members were silent. Ultimately, she felt encouraged by the experience. “Things like this have a big potential to educate American citizens,” she said. “Unfortunately, with all these immigration issues that we live and breathe day in and day out, you start to understand that many people take positions and many times are against immigrants.”

Read the original article in American Theatre Magazine here: