Politicians of every stripe in this country seem to lack the will, creativity and sheer guts to deal in some practical and humane way with the complicated issue of immigration. But where they have failed, the Albany Park Theatre Project – the prodigiously gifted, exquisitely directed youth theater ensemble rooted in a classic “gateway for the world” Chicago neighborhood – has triumphed.
In its latest production, “Home/Land,” now playing to consistently sold-out houses and extended through April 28, the company has transformed an often virulent and intensely partisan subject into the highest art. Even those with attitudes other than those expressed here might find themselves profoundly moved by the nearly two dozen fervent young performers who magically unspool a series of stories in this knockout of a show – a work that should be mandatory viewing for every current and/or wannabe government official.
As you enter the theater, you see two small stages at either side of the space, each piled high with great towers of suitcases, and linked by an alley-style performance area (think of it as the Rio Grande, with the audience seated on its banks). The set (designed by Scott C. Neale) continually morphs. So do the teenage actors here (who could easily vie with adult professionals) as they move through dozens of scenes, all animated by the marvelous techniques of a team of six directors and choreographers (Colby Beserra, David Feiner, Mikhail Fiksel, Stephanie Paul, Maggi Popadiak and Rossana Rofriguez Sanchez).
The initial story – all are based on interviews and research done by the young performers and their advisers, and then shaped into dramatic form – is a classic. It follows the perilous journey of a young father determined to make a better living for his wife and child. He sets out from Ecuador to the United States, with stops in Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatamala and Mexico, where he is turned back after a harrowing (and magnificently rendered) voyage in a tiny, overcrowded boat on rough seas.
A couple that does get in, also hoping to give their kids a better opportunity in life, ends up being torn apart, with the father arrested, put in a monitoring device and then threatened with deportation. Meanwhile, another immigrant woman works tirelessly at a church mission in Chicago where those threatened with deportation find a temporary haven and legal help, as well as a beguiling young priest (Jose Mata).
In one sharply satirical sequence (devised by guest writer James Anthony Zoccoli), we are treated to a glitzy game show, “Do You Want To Be An American?” Hosted by Bob Whiteman, his Mexican assistant and Lady Liberty, we watch as a hapless young Latino contestant (the winning Osbaldo Antunez) – a topnotch, taxpaying student and worker – is continually thwarted.
While both the cast and stories are predominantly Latino, there also is the tale of a young Palestinian girl (the enchanting and funny Paloma Reyes), who grew up wealthy in Kuwait but whose family ends up penniless after the 1990 Iraqi invasion drives them to flee to Jordan and then the United States. Years later, as a headscarf-wearing architecture school graduate in post-Sept. 11 America, she finds her opportunities limited and becomes radicalized.
Also surprisingly radicalized are two supremely feisty, 80-year-old Catholic nuns, played with great verve and wit by Jacqueline Ovalle and Gissela Gualoto.
Space prevents the naming of the full cast (whose splendid ensemble work is enhanced by songs sung in English and Spanish, with the actors often playing instruments, too). But be assured they abound in talent, confidence, emotional heat and technique. Truly astonishing.