"American Dream" Tackles Hot-Button Political Issues

by Jean Schiffman

The world premiere of Brad Erickson's new play opens at NCTC this month.

Brad Erickson's new play, American Dream, el sueño del otro lado--world-premiering in August at New Conservatory Theatre Center--follows three central relationships.

The 20-year marriage between Tom, a 42-year-old architect in San Diego, and Cara, an environmental activist, is over; Tom has come out as gay. When Tom goes to San Miguel de Allende, ostensibly to study Spanish but mainly to meet a Mexican man he's been corresponding with online, the pen pal doesn't show up--but Tom falls in love with his Spanish teacher, Salvador. Meanwhile, a heartbroken and ambivalent Cara has begun a romance with a Republican lawyer, who will figure strongly in Tom's efforts to find a way for Salvador to emigrate.

Those three relationships, intertwined as they turn out to be, are set within a much larger context. Hot-button political and social issues (immigration, environmentalism, racism and more) are interwoven throughout, as the action moves back and forth from San Diego to San Miguel. Peripherally involved are two Minute Men, of different generations and different social attitudes, who monitor the California-Mexico border.

Erickson explores deeply personal issues as well: the bereft wife, the teenage daughter with problems of her own, the two lovers geographically separated by an international border. And he examines cultural issues that can obfuscate communication between Mexicans and Americans.

Erickson, 54, has been the executive director of Theatre Bay Area for the past decade, and a playwright since the age of 10, when he wrote puppet plays. In college he studied acting but preferred to write and in 1990 began to focus on playwriting. His previous plays include Woody & Me, Sexual Irregularities (which premiered at Theatre Rhinoceros in 1996) and The War at Home, which premiered at New Conservatory in 2006.

He recently got married, on Gay Pride day.

Erickson took some time in TBA's office to talk about playwriting and American Dream in particular.

What's the first play you ever saw?

The first professional play was Three Sisters when I was in high school, at Dallas Theatre Center.

What playwrights have influenced you since then?

When I was in drama school I got to know [the work of Harold] Pinter and, especially as an actor having to inhabit those beats and silences, that was a really big influence for me: what was said and what wasn't; how much was being communicated that was not in the actual text. . . . The other influence was from the other side of the spectrum: Tony Kushner, who's incredibly verbose and incredibly smart and funny. Angels in America and his other works are monuments.

How would you describe the central theme of American Dream?

[It's about] this idea of moving from one place to another, whether internally or externally, and what's gained and what's lost--the price that's paid. On the [script's first page] there's a quote in Spanish from Carlos Fuentes, from his novel The Old Gringo: In English, it's "I fear that the true border lies within each one of us." What's this internal frontier that all of us carry inside? I read this quote after I wrote the play and thought, "Oh my God, that's the theme of the play."

Tom goes through most of his changes in the first act; Cara goes through hers in the second. And she holds all the power in the last scene, as powerless as she feels. She's the key to whether everyone's going to be able to move forward or not. So it's a play about a couple. They go through their own borders about what it means to transition out of an old relationship, or transition into a new relationship with each other.

What does the subtitle, el sueño del otro lado, mean?

The dream of the other side. "Otro lado," while literally meaning "the other side," is commonly used in Mexican Spanish to refer to the United States.

When did you start working on American Dream?

Six or seven years ago. It started out as a 15-minute play for Marin Playwrights Lab at Throckmorton Theatre. . . . It's been a long development process--a full staged reading in Marin, a workshop in Tucson right before the draconian new law around immigrants went into effect, and the boycott. There were table readings at New Conservatory and Z Space. I actually signed a contract with Ed [Decker, at New Conservatory] three years ago. Then, with the Supreme Court decisions around DOMA, and reading about how that was going to affect binational gay couples, I shot an email to Ed and Dennis [Lickteig, the director] saying that this could hugely affect the play. We either update it or we put it back to a certain specific moment in time--2009, shortly before Obama was in office and Schwarzenegger was still in office. They felt and I did too it would be better to update it.

What was the original impetus for the play?

I actually had been in a conversation with a Mexican guy who had an experience very like Salvador's. He was chatting online for months and fell in love with an American guy. The Mexican guy was well educated, the American lived in San Diego, and the Mexican guy got as close as he could get by moving to Tijuana, and they just could not solve the border problem. And they eventually wound up breaking up. The issue of the international border between the two of them was too much even though it was only 30 miles.

Along with the macro political issues going on along the border, I'd long had a love for Mexico. I go there annually. I've been all over the country, taken Spanish classes there, and here regularly, too. So I have this interest in what's going on on the border in the sense of all the injustice around the situation there--not just for gay people--and the not-very-well-covered racism that seems very evident around people who are so anti-immigrant.

And I have a fascination with our mutual love-hate relationship. We have a complicated history. At one point Salvador says, "We're enemies--read the history." We've had this weird "frenemy" relationship with each other as countries and with the cultures as well. . . . It's one of the greatest contrasts on the planet between two countries that are neighbors. . . . There's something that's so fascinating to me about that.

You have seven important characters. Is that too many for theaters to be able to afford?

It's always a concern. Seven is about as big as you can get that a theater producer will consider. It does make things a little more difficult, but I wanted to look at this story: the ex-couple, the new couples, the child . . . all those threads needed to be involved.

You go into so many different minds in this play . . . .

There are pieces of my own personal experience in several of the characters. Tom's like me in that he's gone to Mexico to study Spanish, he's gay, I'm gay. But there are parts of Tom that are also completely different from me. And parts about Cara that echo my own experience with a breakup of many years that was very difficult for me to deal with and part from. Was there a way to maintain a relationship with my ex that was healthy and real that wouldn't impinge upon my ability to have a future romantic relationship with someone else? And then there's observed experiences. There's the young man [who influenced the Salvador character]. . . . And I've taken a lot of Spanish classes, many of them in Mexico, and have learned from them. Salvador says his mother slapped him for not using the subjunctive tense because that is blasphemy--I literally took that from my Spanish teacher in San Miguel.

There's an interesting discussion in the play about the use of the subjunctive tense in Spanish. Salvador says, "In Spanish, and especially here in Mexico, the subjunctive es muy importante." He's making an important point.

In Spanish when you get to a certain level all you do is deal with subjunctive over and over so it was very much in my mind. Americans have a hard time understanding when to use it and when not to, in Spanish. We make mistakes with it all the time. . . . but in Mexico no one over the age of six makes those mistakes. [That concept] becomes instinctive. It's difficult [for us] to feel that essence of it, which is about uncertainty, and that's part and parcel of how you see reality. We think in a language. And so that language affects how you approach reality. . . . Particularly in Mexico the subjunctive is important--to doubt the future. Or: "This could have happened but it didn't." That was fascinating to me: The teaching from my Spanish teachers about the way Americans think about the future versus the way Mexicans think about the future. . . . From what I understand . . . we Americans focus on the future and feel like we can control it and know what it is. But we can't.

What are your feelings about creating Salvador, a character who is Mexican, unlike you?

At first it was intimidating and a little scary. I wanted to make sure I was getting it right, mainly getting the story and situation right. I'm pleased with responses I've been getting from Latino-American people who've read it and responded to it. Several actors who turned out to be about 10 years too old to play Salvador, accomplished Equity actors, a couple of them said, "This reflects my life in a way that's scary." They've lived the Salvador experience. . . . The actor we have is Mexican-American, born in Mexico City, so we're staying true to the actual reality, the facts, and also to the emotional reality.

The two Minute Men, Dan and Buddy, are uncle and nephew. And the uncle, Dan, is a more progressive thinker; the nephew's reason for being there is more personal.

I was fascinated with the Minute Men and reading up on the people involved, and some are clearly racist; others come from the military, or are ex-police, and a lot are people who just like to be outside! And there was a really interesting internal struggle in the Sierra Club 10 or 15 years ago . . . the anti-immigration [contingent] . . . had a viewpoint similar to Dan's, which is, look, we're not going to be able to solve the problem for the entire world, but we can do something about America, and part of the problem we have in America is keeping our population low, and we're doing a pretty good job on our own, and immigrants are bringing in more people, and they have a much higher birth rate, so one of the things we need to do is shut immigration down to a trickle. . . . [So I had] this idea of someone who would be perceived and see themselves as progressive on many, many issues but also have an anti-immigrant stance. . . . And Buddy is dealing drugs, he has friends dealing drugs, and they might have gotten caught up in the cartel violence. And the gruesome murder that takes place gives Buddy the personal stake to be there--he's looking for revenge. So rather than generalized animus or generalized racism against Mexicans, he has this much more particular, personal reason to be there.

The character Tom thought he was straight for 40 years. How realistic is that?

Some of his story was lifted from a friend of mine, an Episcopal priest who came out in his late 30s. Even in seminary he went to see gay porn but didn't put it together. He didn't consider himself to be gay until much later!

I was in a relationship for several years with a woman, in my early- and mid-twenties. We broke up, but it was painful and I felt real regret at having had to drag her through that, which Tom does, too.

You don't make it easy for Cara to let go of her relationship with Tom. She's stuck.

She's stuck, your word is good. I've lived it so I know it happens. She's the trickiest character to play. We don't want her to come off as a bitch. I love Cara, I think she's great. Fortunately the actress playing her does, too. It's about finding the warmth, the humor, but she's hurt and hurting and angry; she's in a thorny place, and she's a strong woman, and she's got a big job, and it's like, "How come I can run this huge operation at my job but can't get my personal life together?"

Did you have to do research as to how a teen-aged girl would respond to this situation?

Not research per se. Young people are so much more open to gay marriage, gay issues. And like many daughters she kind of has a crush on her father; she has more issues with her mother. I saw that with my own sister; my mother and sister had a lot more fights, and she was always my father's favorite. The fact that Tom's gay doesn't interfere with that for her.

How did you pick and choose and balance all the issues encompassed in the play?

It is a lot. But we live our lives not in just one or two themes. There's a sort of macro world we're living in, and engaging in, some people more so than others. There's certainly those things all going on simultaneously, and they all interest me--it's interesting to work on something so complex, all those different lines and threads running through it, weaving in and out. . . . There's this idea that the border is real and it's metaphoric; every one of the characters is moving from one place to another, crossing some sort of border, either real or metaphorical or both.

Where would you like to see American Dream go after its premiere here?

I really want to see it done on a border--Los Angeles, Texas, Tucson. I'd like to see how it plays in those communities.

August 16-September 15, New Conservatory, 25 Van Ness. 861-8972.