Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Upon arrival, the audience members complete a form with a few basic questions, have our wrist stamped and fingerprints taken, are given several meaningless documents including a "passport" with an imaginary photo on it, and are assigned to a group. In the large common performance space at Bedlam, in St. Paul's Lowertown district, we sit at tables of six with others of our group. A host/cast member orients each group, in broad terms, to the experience ahead, just a bit. We are sent to a collection of old hats, jackets, scarves, skirts, and other apparel which we can put on to create an immigrant persona.
All at once, everyone at all six tables is toldin languages no one understandsto get up, bring our chairs to the center, and arrange them into airplane aisles. Through a combination of gestures, demonstration, and grunts, we got the drift. The sound of an airplane taking off fills the space while cast members, now airline crew, check our papers. When we land, the real journey begins, passing through near pitch-black hallways, being bounced back and forth among custom agents screening our documents, with no awareness of what they are looking for or how to respond, absorbing their scornful looks and barked orders when we inevitably flub up.
After this debacle, small groups go through various encounters with our new homeland, set up in every nook and cranny of Bedlam's facility. Among these are a sweatshop where we do menial, repetitious tasks; a tenement apartment with too many people for the available seats seats provided (and we have to sit, no standing permitted); and an encounter with a "relative" who preceded us to our new land and is in a state of abject depression. A surreal karaoke club experience is disorienting, even as it entertains.
This is the fourth year that Bedlam Theatre and collaborating partners Dangerous Productions and Live Action Set have created a Big Lowdown experience. I did not attend the previous three: 2013 was an exploration of alleys in Lowertown, 2014 was a celebration of games, and 2015 was "turning the inside out." As good as those no doubt were, it is hard to imagine any of them having the impact of this year's Big Lowdown.
Tyler Olson directed the entire event, exercising a masterful degree of coordination, insight, and empathy for the experiences being plotted. He must also have tremendous faith in the actors who, for the majority of the event, are functioning in different spaces, acting out situations that could not be scripted, as they depend on the response of the audience members, who indeed shift from the role of audience member to characters within the drama unfolding.
While the format makes singling out specific performers difficult, Olson's faith in them is well placed. The actors each do a remarkable job of taking on different roles and staying in character, even on the occasions when they are begged to break the wall and let the audience know what is going on. There are no scripted lines, but the circumstances and the roles and demeanor of the actors are certainly laid out, and as an ensemble they play it out with total commitment. Different costuming cues are used to help the audience know what roles the actors are taking on during each portion of the event. Sound design is used effectively, especially to simulate the airplane journey.
In my previous career, I worked with many immigrant children and their parents in urban school environments. In one position I was responsible for outreach to help newly arrived families understand and become engaged in the American education system. I worked side by side with Hispanic, Southeast Asian, and East African immigrants, and was greatly enriched by those relationships. I say this to suggest that I arrived at The Big Lowdown with some solid knowledge of the immigrant experience and empathy for what those families endure. Nonetheless, The Big Lowdown gave me a deeper, richer awareness of the immigrant experience. It went beyond knowing about it, or being sensitive to it, or even putting it in the context of what my own immigrant grandparents must have gone through, to actually feeling the onslaught of confusion, rudeness, condescension, anxiety, subjugation, helplessness, and humiliation. Even knowing all the while that this was only a show, and in ninety minutes I would be myself again, with all of my privileges intact, there were knots in my stomach and clenching in my jaw as I worked through my own role in the drama.
Sadly, The Big Lowdown is only being presented for a span of five days. It has been the practice for each year's Big Lowdown to be different, but the experience offered this year bears repeating, to be made available to many more people. In fact, it would be excellent as a training vehicle for any occupation that works with members of immigrant communitiesand by that I mean not only social workers, teachers, and health professionals who provide direct service, but people like bus drivers and retail clerks, those people in the public sphere whose treatment of their passengers or customers can make a big difference in how immigrants acclimate to life in a radically new and unknown world.
It is most likely far beyond the scope of Bedlam Theatre and their production partner's missions or resources to become a major training program for cross cultural understanding. Nonetheless, they are to be commended and sincerely thanked for devising this opportunity, executed at such a high level, for a small portion of Twin Cities residents.
The Big Lowdown plays through August 28, 2016 at Bedlam Theatre, 213 East Fourth Street, Saint Paul. Tickets: $20.00. For information and tickets call 507-323-3526 or go to www.bedlamtheatre.org.
Devised collaboratively by members of Live Action Set, Dangerous Productions and Bedlam Theatre; Director: Tyler Olson; Costumes: Chelsea Schroder Lovett; Language Consultant: Soren Olsen; Production Manager: Andi Cheney; Stage Manager: William Harmon; Technical Director: Ana Hymson.
Cast: Core Performers: Noah Bremer, Rebecca Edgington, Joanna Harmon, Kyle Legacion, Marcos Lopez, Dario Tangelson, July Vang, and Mohamed Yabdri; Chorus: Casey Marie Holmes and Sarah Tan.