“I want to emphasize that the goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home. At the same time, I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border, do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border.”
—Vice President Kamala Harris, June 7, 2021
For as long as nations have had borders, immigration has been a hot-button issue. What is often overlooked are the individuals themselves, lured by the optimistic rhetoric of our founding documents, who then meet a bevy of obstacles.
Subtext Studio Theatre Company’s “The American Dream” is part of a trilogy of plays written by Juan Ramirez Jr. and focusing on the Hispanic and Latino/x/é experience of taking the journey into the United States. This world premiere is presented as part of Destinos: the Sixth Chicago International Latino Theater Festival and is performed in English with projected Spanish subtitles.
The play is based on Ramirez Jr.’s mother’s experience making her way through “hot desert days, cold nights on the cement floor and holding onto hope in the social climate of the eighties—all while pregnant with me.”
“The American Dream” is the story of two individuals locked in a life-or-death struggle for freedom. In a dank, decrepit room, illegal migrant Corina (Kairis Rivera) awaits payment from their husband. Efren (Jorge Aguilar) is the coyote responsible for delivering them across the U.S. border—but only if payment is received, or else… Corina is at the mercy of their savior-turned-captor, while Efren is stuck in a circle of violence and cruelty.
Corina is no pushover. She employs every rhetorical tactic at their disposal and comes across as an expert “reader” with skills that put “psychic medium” John Edwards to shame. Using clues that she picks up through conversation, she nimbly tugs at threads in Efren’s personal life to elicit empathy.
These are all tricks. What ensues is a cat-and-mouse game of Efren uncovering the truth behind each deception while falling for the next one. Efren comes off as credulous and naïve, which Corina picks up on—“You don’t seem like the kinda guy who does these things.”
The character of Efren does not come off as a tough guy during their long dialogues—the softness in actor Aguilar’s voice is not very intimidating. His actions speak louder than words, and brutal beatings (by fight choreographer Maddie Curtin) are more convincing.
Corina’s long expositions and diatribes are grating. She’s fighting for life, after all, and their monologues delivered in the same rushed, frantic manner will test the limits of all within earshot.
The climactic ending is predictable, but there is some shock value in the last few minutes.
Scenic design by Harrison Ornelas excels at creating a hopeless atmosphere, with the one-room setting looking like a concrete bunker, with boarded-up windows and walls that are covered in graffiti gang signs between holes that expose wooden studs.
Lighting design by Zuzel Garcia does a good job of creating the feeling that you are in real time, as slats of light shining through the boarded-up window change color to reflect the position of the rising sun.
Omar Vicente Fernandez, director and artistic director of Subtext, notes that “Though I disagree with the philosophy surrounding American Exceptionalism, I do believe The American Dream exists.” The point of the production is to show that that dream is possible, but for migrants it is often won by facing chaotic hardships, and that some don’t survive long enough to experience it.
Subtext’s “The American Dream” can be hard to watch but does a good job of raising awareness for the plight of those seeking a better life in the “land of opportunity.”
Subtext Studio Theatre Company presents “The American Dream” through October 29 at Madison Street Theater, 1010 Madison Street, Oak Park. Tickets are $22 (for students, seniors and military with ID), $25 (general admission), $30 (reserved seating), and are available at SubtextStudioTC.org. Patrons are encouraged to donate toiletries and backpacks for asylum seekers in the theater lobby before the performance.