A TV Game Show Determines Citizenship in Powerful and Playful 'American Dreams' at Cleveland Public Theatre

A TV Game Show Determines Citizenship in Powerful and Playful 'American Dreams' at Cleveland Public Theatre (2)
Photo credit: Steve Wagner
American Dreams, Cleveland Public Theatre

“It’s a game! It’s a show! It’s America!!”

And so begins the television game show that is also the current play at Cleveland Public Theatre titled American Dreams. When you get a ticket to be a member of the CPT audience, you also become part of the audience of this “TV production” that unrolls before your eyes.

This world premiere production features a core of touring actors augmented by local performers in small roles. It is written by Leila Buck, who also takes a lead role as co-host of the TV show, and it reaches out and grabs the audience through the familiar trappings of shows like Jeopardy! and The Price Is Right. Except in this instance the prize isn’t a new washer/dryer, it’s instant citizenship in the United States.

By taking some bold chances this 90-minute play, augmented by a great deal of audience participation, succeeds in throwing a spotlight on the values we supposedly hold dear—such as freedom and democracy. And while there are a few slow and somewhat predictable spots, this show can leave you with a visceral sense of how it must feel to be a person from another country yearning to live in America.

Hard as it may be for some to believe, U.S. citizenship is still a treasured commodity for those from what our President has elegantly dubbed “shithole countries.” And in this show the three contestants—Alejandro (Andrew Aaron Valdez), Usman (Imran Sheikh) and Adil (Ali Andre Ali)—are from Mexico, Pakistan and Palestine. As we are told, the government has vetted each individual in the trio and they are now competing before a live studio audience (that’s you) to see which one will be granted citizenship.

The two game show hosts are played with smarmy goofiness by Buck and Jens Rasmussen (who collaborated on the script along with the three actors who play the contestants). The hosts welcome the audience before the show begins, warming up the crowd and even welcoming some by name. You see, when you enter from the lobby you pass through a metal detector, ease past a security guard, and are then required to fill out two forms—one of which asks for your name and place of birth along with some other questions about your personal lineage, as well as your opinion on what an immigrant should promise to do if granted citizenship.

This mildly intrusive pre-screening nicely sets the tone for what is to come. And after the TV show goes “on air” with nighttime aerial footage of downtown Cleveland, just like a Monday Night Football game telecast, the game commences. There are several different sections to the game, with titles such as “How America Works,” “America’s Favorites,” and “American Dreams.” During these segments, the three contestants are peppered with questions dealing with facts (Who is fourth in line for the Presidency?) and shared opinions (What is America’s favorite book? How about second favorite?).

There’s even a section dubbed “Aliens with Extraordinary Skills,” in which the three hopefuls show off the particular talent they would bring with them to their new country. Some of these segments work better than others. For instance, when Adil attempts to show off his culinary skills by creating a dish from the available contents of the show’s green room fridge, the show bogs as we watch him prepare a broccoli and grape salad. Where are the Today Show’s Kathy Lee and Hoda when you need them, swilling wine during a food bit?

Even though all aspects of this TV show don’t maintain a satirical edge, things get serious when, about an hour into the play, the contestants are put on the “Hot Seat.” This is when the hosts’ questions become more pointed, and even unfair, and some of the less savory aspects of each contestant’s backgrounds are revealed. It’s almost too bad that we don’t get to the “Hot Seat” questions sooner, so that some of the challenging issues around immigration could get a fuller and more emotional, exploration.

Still, before the audience finally votes on who will get citizenship, each of the contestants has been pretty well stripped of their privacy and pride.

Playwright Buck and director Tamilla Woodard (who also helped develop the material) are to be commended for the concept of American Dreams. By making the entire play follow the steps of TV show taping, including the breaks for commercials when the hosts and contestants meander around, grabbing a sip of water or checking with a technician, the subtext of the hoops we make immigrants go through never comes off as heavy handed.

Indeed, the constant presence of security guards on the set is obvious but not forced. And ultimately the joy of the “winner” is tempered by the fact that the other two hopefuls have been left out in the cold. As, indeed, many aspiring immigrants are these days, by the tens of thousands.

If a good play should make you think about an issue and make you a bit uncomfortable about your preconceived notions, then American Dreams does the job. And as usual, CPT presents it with professional polish and style.

American Dreams
Through March 3 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, cptonline.org.
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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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