Desperation, longing and full musical theater belting rocked the house, as actors performed “Take me America” at Village Theatre opening night, Sept. 14.
The name of the musical was also the the cry for help uttered by seven of the characters in the show, refugees who had come to the U.S. from all over the world, including Algeria, Darfur, China, El Salvador, Haiti and Palestine.
Those seven actors grappled with an added challenge of singing and acting with accents from their character’s respective homelands. Whereas Aaron Finley, Dennis Batemen and (a hilarious performance by) Leslie Law, played the U.S. officials who determined whether they would stay or go.
Standout acting included Ben Gonio, who played a Chinese poet fleeing persecution under Communist China. Gonio’s dramatic performance was gripping as he recounted atrocities he suffered in prison. On the other hand, performer Diana Huey, who played his wife, sparkled with an impressive vocal range and tenderness in her duets with Gonio.
In many cases, the characters in the musical were fleeing from certain death, such as Malith, a Dinka from Darfur, played by Ekello Harrid Jr.
More immediate than immigration, asylum requires people to prove they are fleeing from harm’s way in their homeland.
In reality, this life-and-death situation happens everyday in the U.S.
“Take Me America” writer and lyricist Bill Nabel was inspired by the PBS documentary “Well Founded Fear,” where filmmakers Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson enter the closed corridors of the Immigration and Naturalization Services. The film reveals a stark, haunting true story where human rights and American ideals collide with the nearly impossible task of trying to know the truth.
Some refugees seeking asylum lie about their reasons for wanting to come to the U.S.
That was touched on in Nabel’s show with the character Jean, a Haitian refugee played by J. Reese. Jean lied about his reasons for seeking persecution, because no one will believe that he is actually a gay man.
This brings up another success of “Take Me America” – it’s ability to entertain, while still presenting a serious topic. It’s a musical that both excites, and wrenches the heart.
While Jean’s story of being discriminated against for his sexual orientation was somber, the song “Not Gay Enough” was upbeat and humorous, depicting the various lengths Jean went to “look the part” for the U.S. bureaucrats, including dressing in drag and throwing glitter.
Finally, the show closed with projections of Lady Liberty over the simple, yet versatile set (a series of file cabinets) as refugees once again cried out the show’s signature phrase.
Hearing these desperate cries, to be taken or rescued by America, was a reminder to audience members of their own freedoms in the U.S. As Nabel had hoped, the show redefined conventional notions of the American experience with both poignancy and a powerful delivery.
Take Me American runs now until Nov. 20 at Village Theatre, 303 Front St. N., Issaquah. For more information, go to www.villagetheatre.org or call the box office at 425-392-2202.