A game show where three contestants compete for the grand prize—immediate citizenship to the U.S.A.—and the audience decides who wins. That’s the premise of American Dreams, the newest work by actor/playwright Leila Buck ’99, which just completed its world premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre on March 3rd.
In this participatory theater piece, each night the contestants—a Mexican-American medic and Dreamer, a Pakistani cartoonist, and a Palestinian chef—compete in five rounds: How America Works (a buzzer-style quiz with questions from the U.S. citizenship test); America’s Favorites (audience volunteers help contestants answer questions from national surveys about Americans’ “favorite things”); Aliens with Extraordinary Skills (contestants pit their talents against each other to see who can most contribute to American society); American Dreams (contestants share their dreams and plans for life in the United States); and The Hot Seat (audience members and hosts interrogate contestants before deciding who should be their newest neighbor).
The audience is invited to participate and to vote throughout the play in various ways, and whoever accrues the most points in all five rounds, wins. The winner (potentially different each night) then swears the Oath of Citizenship as the grand finale of the show—until an unexpected turn of events asks those on stage, and the audience, to question what happens to those who don’t win.
Buck began imagining this piece with her director and co-creator Tamilla Woodard during the summer of 2016, with the presidential election still ahead and questions of immigration and citizenship top-of-mind in the national consciousness. Meeting regularly with Woodard throughout that year, Buck says, “We wanted to create something that would invite audiences to engage with what it means to them to be and to become a citizen of this country.”
And in a moment that she calls typical of their process, they seemed to come to the same idea at the same time: “It’s a game show!”—and the real creative journey began.
The nascent idea was chosen for workshops at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center and Queens College. “They each gave us a budget, time and space to see what this might look like on its feet,” says Buck. Raymond Bobgan, the executive artistic director of Cleveland Public Theatre, came to one of their workshop presentations at LaGuardia, and immediately asked how to bring it to his venue—and American Dreams headed westward.
Buck is committed to her actors, several of whom helped create their roles and other elements of the play. However, not all the New York actors were available for the Cleveland production—which Buck, Woodard and Bobgan turned into an opportunity to work with local actors: “It’s important to us and to the piece to work with actors who come from the backgrounds of the contestants they are playing, and represent the immigrant populations in each community,” Buck says. “I wanted the contestants to be Middle Eastern, South Asian and Mexican men, because those are some of the groups most frequently framed as potential threats to this country.”
It has been a learning process to develop these three characters so that their talents are equally appealing—and backgrounds potentially alarming—to a different audience each night. One discovery Buck and Woodard made during the show’s run in Cleveland: At least in this moment in time, the Dreamer almost always wins. Next, she says, they want to explore how that changes in other communities and times, and whether to adapt the play accordingly. They are also planning an all-female version “to explore a different range of assumptions, questions and fears.”
And lest you fear the burden inherent in choosing the fate of fellow human beings, Buck notes that Woodard is adept at keeping the production fun. “She really knows how to create spaces where people can really engage in a variety of ways,” she says. “There is a lot of humor, play and fun in the piece along with the tough questions and choices.”
Buck is grateful to both audience members and actors for “meeting each other in a space of vulnerability, uncertainty and possibility.” She says the most important journey takes place inside each audience member: “The show is really about inviting us to reflect on our decisions about who we trust, and why—and how those choices shape who we are as individuals and as a nation.” She praises Cleveland Public Theatre’s commitment to taking risks and working with, in, and for a wide range of communities. “It’s really been a gift to have the opportunity to engage with so many people thanks to their support and commitment. And we’re looking forward to sharing this experience with other communities across the country.”
American Dreams was created and developed in collaboration with director Tamilla Woodard and actor Jens Rasmussen, along with actors Ali Andre Ali, India Nicole Burton, Osh Ghanimah, Imran Sheikh and Andrew Aaron Valdez. Buck invites those interested in bringing the show to their community to contact Tommy Kriegsmann of ArKtype at: Tommy@arktype.org