‘Take Me America’ tackles asylum question

September 6, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Village Theatre Performers present a stripped-down reading of upcoming Mainstage production ‘Take Me America’ at Village Theatre’s 2009 Festival of New Musicals. By Sam Freeman/

The subject for the latest original musical from Village Theatre is rooted in human rights and national security — ambitious issues to address onstage and in song.

“Take Me America” offers tales from refugees seeking political asylum in the United States, as well as the government agents assigned to determine the applicants’ fates.

The opener for Village Theatre’s 2011-12 season Sept. 15 is the West Coast premiere for the show.

Bill Nabel, “Take Me America” author and lyricist, said “Well-Founded Fear” — a 2000 documentary about the asylum process — laid the foundation for the rock musical. The filmmakers recorded the last interviews of applicants in the asylum process for the piece.

“To me, a musical is about where you find your heart,” Nabel said. “There’s a very large part of that in the asylum question. Asylum is much more than a legal question to us. How do we make a human decision about a law?”

The author also received inspiration from a Broadway blockbuster.

“Having done ‘A Chorus Line’ on Broadway with the original company, it had a lot of elements of ‘A Chorus Line,’” he said. “In ‘A Chorus Line,’ the dramatic drive is who’s going to get the job, and in ‘Take Me America,’ it’s who’s going to get asylum.”

The creative team established the setting for “Take Me America” as circa 2009 in order to avoid near-constant rewrites to reflect geopolitical changes.

“It will be thought provoking because of the subject matter and the way the story is being told,” director Jerry Dixon said. “It’s provocative. It doesn’t pull its punches. It’s human. It’s got a balance of real grit and great humanity and humor to it.”

Cast, audience shapes musical

The musical does not reference the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, although “Take Me America” includes ongoing issues dredged up by the attacks.

If you go

‘Take Me America’

  • Village Theatre — Francis J. Gaudette Theatre
  • 303 Front St. N.
  • Sept. 15 to Oct. 23
  • Show times vary
  • $20 to $60
  • 392-2202 or www.villagetheatre.org

“The American conundrum about what’s a good Muslim and what’s a bad Muslim is very much in the show,” Nabel said.

The audience in Issaquah shaped the show in the years before the Mainstage debut.

“Take Me America” earned a spot in the 2009 Festival of New Musicals — a test bed for Mainstage musicals and Broadway. The barebones reading captivated festivalgoers.

“One of the things that’s so great about Village Theatre Originals is that the audience pool is really smart,” Dixon said. “They’re also very generous with their thoughts and time. They can be as smart as they want but keep it to themselves, and that’s not good.”

The director caught a replay of a discussion after the festival reading and rifled through surveys about the show from audience members.

“These people really know what they want to see and how they want to see it,” he said.

Nabel said, in the end, such collaboration strengthens a show.

“If you go into a production and you think you know everything and you stop asking questions and you stop trying to make it better, I think you cheat yourself and you cheat the idea,” he said.

Nabel and composer Bob Christianson redrafted the script and adjust lyrics as rehearsals unfolded.

“The spine of the show is there; we know what the spine is,” Nabel said. “As far as making it better, we won’t stop.”

The director encouraged the “Take Me America” author and composer to shore up the differences between asylum and immigration to offer audiences more clarity.

“One of my first jobs was to get the authors to take away any ambiguous language or monetary language like, ‘I’m coming to America to get ahead, to make a better living,’” Dixon said. “That’s immigration. That’s different. ‘I’m coming to America because my arms will be hacked off by my government.’ That’s not immigration.”

Dixon needed a hardworking — and, befitting a musical about asylum applicants from around the globe — a multiethnic cast for the “Take Me America” debut.

The cast also includes Village Theatre alumni.

Ekello Harrid Jr. — a standout from the playhouse’s “Show Boat” in 2009 — is Malith, a Dinka from war-torn Sudan. Aaron Finley returns to Village Theatre after turns as Jesus and Judas in a re-imagined “Jesus Christ Superstar” last season to star as a greenhorn agent learning on the job. Dennis Bateman and Leslie Law star as the other asylum agents.

“It was very important for me to select 10 actors who could not only do the work but also who could flesh out the work in the room on a daily basis,” Dixon said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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