A game show that asks audiences whether or not to award someone U.S. citizenship sounds like a twisted kind of dystopia. But for the co-creators of American Dreams, an interactive production staging live online performances through Nov. 15, that unsettling premise is closer than it may seem to the truth.
“Every time you vote, you're choosing how this country operates,” said Tamilla Woodard, director and co-creator of American Dreams, which was originally conceived as an in-person performance and mounted at Cleveland Public Theatre in 2018. Woodard and American Dreams writer and co-creator Leila Buck adapted the show for a virtual run in the lead-up to the 2020 election, when its participatory exploration of democracy and individual responsibility could hardly feel more relevant.
Presented by off-Broadway’s Working Theater, in partnership with six other theaters around the country, American Dreams is set up like a game show that invites audience interaction, a format the creators say was intuitive to move online. Three contestants, beaming into the broadcast from their separate home countries, are competing to gain entry to the U.S. They answer trivia about the founding documents, demonstrate special talents, and weather a ‘hot seat’ interrogation of their personal lives and beliefs—in rounds of play based on actual steps toward U.S. citizenship.
The online audience is connected through Zoom and visible to each other (for those who choose to turn on their cameras, which is encouraged). Viewers are routinely asked to judge, through hand gestures, applause, or Zoom polling, whether they deem each contestant worthy of naturalization.
“I want people to understand that a political vote is a personal vote, that it means choosing your neighbor,” Woodard says, pointing to xenophobic border policies by the current administration that were set in motion by the voting process.
But voting in American Dreams is also personal in another sense. Audiences are asked to pass quick, and consequential, judgements on the play’s characters based on whether they like or trust them (something the creators say U.S. border officials do every day). In this way, the play also aims to make clear that people don’t just vote based on their political views, “we're enticed by personality,” Woodard says.
The contestants present a cross-section of immigrant narratives. Alejandro (played by Andrew Aaron Valdez) served as a medic in the U.S. National Guard before being deported to Mexico. Usman (Imran Sheikh) is an illustrator from Pakistan and an avid Trekkie. Adil (Ali Andre Ali) is a chef and entrepreneur from Palestine who is Christian and, unlike the other two, presents as white.
Woodard and Buck say they settled on three male contestants because, when a woman contestant was included during the play’s development, she always won the most audience votes no matter how they framed her backstory.
“By and large, if you ask people to picture someone who is threatening, they're still going to picture someone that they identify as male,” Buck says. “If we're really trying to invite a visceral response that is based in some part on fear, and in some part on our idea of trust, then people who someone would identify as male trigger that in a different way that is important to the depth of the journey of the play.”
All three male contestants are downright congenial in the first two rounds, when they answer simple civics questions and demonstrate special talents. In fact, it’s the game’s co-hosts, played by Buck and Jens Rasmussen, whose role in the proceedings grows more sinister. What begins as a light-hearted, if off-putting, contest to decide the men’s fate takes a darker turn when the hosts drill down on them, one-by-one, in the final ‘hot seat’ round.
The creators knew they wanted one of the co-hosts to be a white man (Rasmussen); and Buck, who is part Lebanese and presents as white, felt she wanted to explore the complicity of immigrants who are more easily able to assimilate. “I felt it was important to represent that there are immigrants and children of immigrants in this country who are upholding some of the laws and systems that keep other immigrants and children of immigrants down—people of color, and Black and indigenous folks, in particular.”
The co-hosts’ whiteness comes into sharper relief as they press Usman on his allegiance to Muslim traditions, Alejandro on whether he’d report his own family to government authorities for wrongdoing, and Adil on if he believes in a two-state solution.
Throughout this portion of the show, the audience is asked to give “temperature checks”—a thumbs up, down, or somewhere in between to measure whether they “feel good” about the contestants’ answers. But by this point, viewers have become full participants, in a deeply uncomfortable position that’s tough to feel good about at all.
“The journey of the play really lives in the audience,” Buck says. “It’s in their experience as they move through these questions of, ‘Who am I voting for?’ ‘Where is my perspective on this human being coming from?’ ‘And how does that relate to my perspective on what it means to be a citizen of this country?’” Whether viewers even feel comfortable being asked to choose who gets to be an American depends on how each of us thinks about our place in this country.
“We all have judgments, we all have biases and perspectives based on our lived experience,” Buck says. “So the idea of inviting people to explore those things in a playful, deeper way, was really important.”
The Zoom format allows audiences to see, even more clearly than they would in a theatre, how their peers are responding to the interrogations. That level of visibility affects how viewers respond as a group.
Woodard, who is Black, described one recent online performance attended by a number of Black men. When Adil compares being locked up for no reason as a Palestinian man to the experience of Black men in America, the Black men in the audience put their thumbs way up in agreement.
“Sometimes an audience gives that a thumbs-down,” Woodard says. But with a number of Black men giving it an enthusiastic thumbs-up, Woodard could see other audience members shifting their response into agreement.
“It felt important to capture the collectiveness of the democratic process,” Buck said. “There is a collective mind as well, there is an influence that impacts our individual decisions.”
The title American Dreams doesn’t just point to the lives the contestants hope to lead if they win the game. Ultimately, the play compels audiences to consider their own ideas about America—who belongs here and why, whether any of its founding ideals hold up under the weight of the present.
“People from other countries who give up whole lives and connections to homelands, to come here and make a new life, hold a belief in what is possible,” Buck says. Watching these characters strive to become American may serve to inspire viewers who feel disheartened about the country’s current state.
“I think the idea of this American dream, this place where you're welcome, where you're allowed to participate to the fullness of your own humanity, and your intellect can prosper, is really possible,” Woodard says. “It’s going to take enormous amounts of work, and dismantling, and making up for the bad shit. But we can do it—we just have to put our eye on the prize.”