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“This fall and winter are all about exploring new ways to tell stories and interact with audiences,” says Round House Theatre Artistic Director Ryan Rilette. Stepping lively into that exploration, Round House opens its unprecedented virtual 2020-21 season with a production explicitly designed to make the most of live digital presentation. Leila Buck’s American Dreams, directed by Tamilla Woodard, invites its online audience to participate as viewers of the nation’s “newest game show sensation,” where the ultimate prize for contestants is citizenship to the great U.S.A.
Three hopefuls, from Palestine, Pakistan, and Mexico, try their luck and test their knowledge, while the live audience decides which of them earns the right to become a citizen. Outlandish as the premise might seem, the game show sharply examines who gets to decide what it means to be a citizen.
“If that were really up to me, what would actually weigh into that decision?” says Buck. “Because it’s easy for me to judge people who I think feel differently than I do about that, right? It’s easy to polarize. It’s easy to feel very divided along these issues and have a lot of simplified soundbites about it. But in the end, what I wanted to do, and loved doing with Tamilla, is to explore what is that thing that would actually make you have to pause and go, ‘What would I do? Who would I choose and why? And am I even aware of all the things that would go into my decision?'”
American Dreams will pose such questions to an unusually wide audience in its six-week run. Round House will serve as the play’s D.C.-area kickoff for a virtual tour across the United States, just in time to ride the fervor of one of the most unruly election seasons in recent memory. “It’s a national tour for local conversations,” says Woodard of the American Dreams trek, performed with theaters from Arizona and Texas, to New York and California.
“The production is a part of the larger conversation that we hope each of these places is actually having about the importance of having access to vote, first of all, and that your raising your hand actually results in something. And so you should be mindful of your action as a citizen and the privilege that you have to vote. That’s one hand. And then the other hand is that there are folks who hold the American ideal so close to their heart, and so purely, that we sometimes have to listen to the folks on the outside — and these are our hopeful immigrants — to tell us who we really are.”
Lebanese-American Buck recalls learning vital lessons about the American dream from her immigrant family. “I have often said my grandmother was the most patriotic person I knew because she struggled to come here,” says Buck. “She sacrificed a lot. A lot of people sacrificed so much to come here.” The play, while satirizing what our politics and culture might have made of the citizenship process, clearly aims to honor the immigrant experience. “There’s a quote that has been at the top of the script since very, very early on by [writer] Arne Garborg: ‘To love someone is to learn the song in their heart and to sing it for them when they have forgotten.’ And that is what many immigrants have done for me and for, I’m sure, others in this country.”
Buck and Woodard developed American Dreams — along with actor/collaborators Jens Rasmussen, Imran Sheikh, Ali Andre Ali, India Nicole Burton, and Andrew Aaron Valdez — to reflect, as Woodard points out, “that there’s something beautiful when we hear what these characters think of this country, which is probably far better than what we think of this country right now. But it can bring us back to that ideal because we all have to be operating on what’s possible rather than simply what is.”
American Dreams performances at Round House Theatre stream live October 5 to 11. Tickets are $30. Visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.
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