Those of us without a direct link to immigrant experience inevitably underestimate the extent of our ignorance and the impact of our unexamined assumptions on what we see and what we expect to see. Lauren Yee’s new play, Young Americans, a co-production with Pittsburgh Public Theater that is enjoying its world premiere at Portland Center Stage, gently troubles our assumptions and, if we allow it, will awaken appropriate curiosity about what we don’t know.
The play’s structure is deceptively simple. Joe picks up his college-age daughter Lucy from an East Coast airport to surprise her with a road trip back to their home in Portland after her year abroad. As it turns out, he took this trip once before, with Jenny, Lucy’s mother, before they married. The play cuts back and forth in time between Joe’s road trips with Lucy and Jenny, revealing bits of the truth about each of its three characters.
We eventually gather that all three were born outside the U.S.—as Joe jokes, neither he nor his daughter can run for president—but the play doesn’t specify which country. And in small ways, each of these relatable characters defies our expectations in ways that might well provoke questions about why we have those expectations.
You might find yourself trying to place where they are “from,” particularly when Joe and Jenny are getting to know each other, or wondering why they left their home countries. Yet you might also notice that neither of them wants to go back; neither feels satisfied with their options there. Joe is constantly focused on what “people” or “they” say or what he has read, endlessly recounting advice from his many unnamed sources for how to fit in here. Jenny casts a more critical eye, noticing the contradictions and holes in Joe’s explanations for why things are the way they are in the U.S.; questioning the point of tipping service workers, for example, and the value of learning English. And you might find yourself momentarily distracted that neither Joe nor Jenny speaks with an accent when they converse with each other—but then realize that what you are seeing is a representation of how they sound to one another.
The play’s slight adjustments of expectations also shed different light on Joe’s choices and his relationship to his daughter than you might typically see. You might notice that the usual assumption would be that all of their differences boil down to old-country-vs.-new-country cultural norms—yet Joe is more complicated than that, and so is Lucy. The play opens up more possibilities for what drives Joe, and also for what drives his daughter’s struggles for identity.
Yee has noted that her plays reflect an interest in the “impossibility of knowing who your parents were before they had you.” In related ways, it may also be impossible for even loving parents to wholly know their child. The scrambling of time and setting here tenderly explores who each of the three characters is at their core, things they might sense about each other, especially across generations, but never see. And the decision to keep their origin country unnamed serves to take certain distractions off the table. It also makes room for different possibilities as other casts work with these characters.
This cast is strong. Danny Bernardo captures how Joe’s controlling instincts cover insecurity and an instinct to conform, what might attract him to a partner whose assurance comes from a different set of assumptions, and how he might manage to raise a daughter both loyal and capable of defiance. Marielle Young infuses Jenny with furious determination that resists the conformity we demand of women, and especially immigrant women; you might feel some appropriate sorrow that Lucy’s understandable resentments miss some information about her mother that she might admire. And Sammy Rat Rios holds with complexity the contradictions of a child navigating the differences in social location that so commonly challenge the children of immigrant parents. Their work reflects the humane instincts of director Desdemona Chiang, Yee’s frequent collaborator, an immigrant herself and, like Yee, a daughter of immigrants.
“Young Americans” means to challenge your sense of who might be included in that description, and succeeds by building empathy that leaves room for curiosity. It plays at Portland Center Stage through March 26.