Before the play begins, the stage for Take Me America, making its world premiere at Village Theatre on Sept. 15, is concealed by a projection of a blank U.S. government asylum application, in lieu of a curtain. Behind the bureaucratic façade of this new musical, which comes from the development program that generated Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner Next to Normal, there lies a tangled tale of legal red tape, desperation, and hope.
Set in either 2008 or 2009 (the program notes cite both years), Take Me America charts a single day at a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office, where seven refugees from around the globe await their make-it-or-break-it interview with a U.S. agent who will decide whether America will either take them or send them back to the country they have fled.
For those uncertain of the distinction between immigration and asylum, Bill Nabel (book and lyrics) provides a breezy definition at the outset, both spoken by the refugees and projected on the towering gray filing cabinets upstage that corral them. These seven men and women appear to meet the criteria for asylum: Each has a history of persecution in his or her home country, each has nowhere else to go, and each is afraid for their life.
Take Me America is a musical steeped in fear. The music thrums with it, a pop rock set of catchy yet forgettable tunes by Bob Christianson, spiked with the occasional “ethnic” riff depending on the nationality of the singer. Harried from the start by questions from initially unseen USCIS agents, the seven refugees plead simply, “Take me!”
Our guide through the joyless application process is brand new agent Gary (Aaron C. Finley), a 24-year-old with an English degree and a naïve eagerness that does not serve him well in his new job. “I can do this!” he earnestly proclaims to his two seasoned coworkers (Dennis Bateman and Leslie Law), who are amused and unconvinced. Gary is the answer to nearly every question about why the immigration system continues to frustrate U.S. and foreign born alike. When he asserts, “I’m smarter than they think,” it is unclear whether “they” are his jaded fellow agents, the refugees he’s tasked with interviewing, or both. In any event, he’s in way over his head.
Politically correct with a vengeance, the script trades difficult questions for a cautious dance between the carefully non-stereotyped refugees and the immigration agents, who deny any hint of prejudice. Though the agents admit, “I’m afraid to let people in,” they quickly follow up with, “I’m afraid not to let people in.”
Debating whether America is a melting pot or a tossed salad, the agents put the refugees through a series of probing interviews, often in song, that bring to mind a post-9/11 version of A Chorus Line. The three USCIS agents are all white, naturally. The refugees are fleeing Haiti, El Salvador, and Darfur. And though their stories of torture, kidnapping, and imprisonment are horrific, they are also incoherent and fragmentary. These refugees, sympathetic characters though they are, admit to calculated dishonesty. “It’s not illegal to lie. You just change your name and try again,” quips Haitian Jean (J Reese), gay but not gay enough to have been believably persecuted, he feels.
Emotionally buffeted, going from idealistic to skeptical to utterly overwhelmed during his first day on the job, Gary makes only one true human connection among the refugees and his coworkers. Formerly jailed Chinese poet Wu (Ben Gonio) sparks the sole personal interaction Gary can muster. Gary openly admires Wu’s full-time job as a writer, even as he demands an invasive physical exam to document the scars inflicted during his imprisonment. Still, Wu is not part of Gary’s American experience. “Have I been afraid enough to get asylum?” Wu demands. Gary admits, “When I signed up to save the world, I didn’t realize the world was real."
Scott Fyfe’s set is a cunningly characterless gray landscape of desks, uncomfortable chairs, and filing cabinets that split and shift to form a skyscraper, a pyramid, a Chinese pagoda, and a prison. The soulless blank surfaces are periodically obliterated by projected images pulled from the psyches of the refugees. A romantic blue river suddenly runs red with blood, silhouettes of prison guards loom, minarets spiral up to the sky.
Nabel’s book and lyrics oscillate from poignant, as when the refugees sing of dreams that had to be discarded when they left their homelands, to idiosyncratic, the worst offender of the evening being the musing by Palestinian Asif (the versatile and blameless Eric Polani Jensen) that when he saw people surfing on the Gaza Sea, he realized that perhaps one day peace might be possible in the Middle East. Because surfing on the Gaza Sea is unheard of — impossible! And so is peace between Israel and Palestine. Get it?
Based on a 2000 documentary, Well Founded Fear, about the INS (predecessor of the USCIS), Take Me America is an unrelenting, intermission-less 90 minutes. Stripped of the film’s ability to literally focus on individual characters, it is marked by a feeling of alienation. Though you’ll chuckle occasionally, you won’t cry. The production begs for acknowledgment of the deeply rooted controversy that surrounds U.S. immigration policy. The jingoistic finale, complete with unironic Stars and Stripes surmounted by the Statue of Liberty, leaves little doubt as to how the audience is supposed to feel about the tortured, imprisoned, and persecuted “winners” who were granted asylum, and the slightly less tormented “losers” who were not. It proclaims that America as an idealized concept, not a real place, is the prize at the end of this competition in which he who suffers the most wins. To make it on Broadway, a musical needs to inspire more profound sentiments than shallow patriotism and fleeting pity.
If you go: Take Me America is on stage at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre in Issaquah through Oct. 23. It moves to the Everett Performing Arts Center from Oct. 28 to Nov. 20. For tickets, visit www.villagetheatre.org.