No one planned to start a second run of Home/Land at the Goodman Theatre at the same time an immigration reform bill started making its way through Congress—the Goodman put it on its schedule more than a year ago—but director David Feiner admits that the timing is very good. (The play opens this Thursday, July 18, and runs through July 28.)
"The play isn't itself an overt political statement," he says. "It reinserts the voices of people affected by government policies and humanizes a debate characterized by simplistic rhetoric. It reminds audience members that policies affect people's lives."
The voices and stories in Home/Land come from interviews with actual undocumented immigrants from all over Chicago, including some of the young participants in the Albany Park Theater Project, their families, and their friends. After several months of interviewing, the group had amassed 250 pages of transcripts. The teenagers went over the transcripts with adult staff members, searching for unifying themes and images, and after a few more months of discussion, improvisation, and trial and error, they had a script.
This is the way the Albany Park Theater Project usually produces its plays, but Home/Land had a special urgency, says Feiner. The group's previous production, Feast, about people's relationships to food and foodie culture, had generated a fair amount of attention, including a stint at the Goodman. Now that the public was finally aware of the Albany Park Theater Project, he says, "it seemed like a great opportunity and responsibility to turn the lens on immigration."
Most of the original cast of Home/Land will be reprising their roles in the Goodman production. "The actors play their roles as if their lives depend on it," says Feiner. "The stakes are high because it's an investment of time, but also because they met the people whose stories they're telling onstage. They feel they've been entrusted with a sacred responsibility to do justice—that's the term they use a lot—to someone's story."
The play attracted the attention of Henry Godinez, the director of the Goodman's Latino Theatre Festival, who also happens to be a board member of the Albany Park Theater Project. Godinez approached Feiner in the spring of 2012, after the original run had closed, about doing a revival at the Goodman. The Albany Park contingent agreed almost immediately, even though the performances would be 15 months away, by which time several of the cast members would have left for college.
"The theater's downtown," Feiner explains. "It's just a few blocks from City Hall and Federal Plaza. There was enormous excitement among the youth artists."
Already Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, who saw Home/Land during its original run, has promised to attend a performance at the Goodman, and Feiner says he's talked with staff members in the offices of Tammy Duckworth and Bobby Rush. Following this Friday's show, there will be a public discussion on immigration reform.
If this all sounds overwhelmingly serious and grim, more like an advanced policy seminar than entertainment, Feiner insists that there's actually a great deal of humor and hope in the show. "Because of the youth of our ensemble," he says, "they're able to invest these stories with enormous amounts of hope and optimism."