In a controversial 1975 interview, David Bowie characterized his song “Young Americans” as being “about a newly-wed couple who don’t know if they really like each other. Well, they do, but they don’t know if they do or don’t. It’s a bit of a predicament.” But that explanation is a bit flippant: in the song, a pair of young lovers get married, have babies and then quickly become disillusioned with their conventional lives, wondering, “all the way from Washington,” if “we live for just these twenty years do we have to die for the fifty more?” It’s a song that traces both the particular hopes and dreams associated with being young and American from an outsider’s perspective, and the social and political realities that operate to quash and disappoint those hopes and dreams.
Lauren Yee’s new play Young Americans takes both inspiration and detail from Bowie’s song. The action centers on two road trips, about twenty years apart, both of which trace a route from Washington D.C. to Portland Oregon. One is taken by Joe (Danny Bernardo), an immigrant green-card holder who has driven to D.C. to pick up Jenny (Marielle Young), a woman from his (unspecified) home country whom he has arranged to marry. The other is taken by an older Joe with their adopted daughter Lucy (Sammy Rat Rios), after Joe surprises Lucy by picking her up in D.C. on her return from her junior study abroad semester in that same home country. On the first road trip, Joe and Jenny are not only Bowie’s “couple who don’t know if they really like each other,” they are also two people navigating their relationship with America and its aspirational self-styling as a land of opportunity and welcome. On the second trip, the father-daughter duo are also working out the predicament of “liking each other” as they navigate the generational differences in the immigrant experience.
Both trips are opportunities for the members of the pairs to get to know each other better, and in the process the two parallel trips offer us the opportunity to gain insight into three different immigrant experiences of the American Dream. The play also explores how language, custom, and personal history not only divide immigrant parents from their first-gen children but also often render the parents a mystery to their offspring. Yee and director Desdemona Chiang employ a clever device to make this gap palpable: in the scenes in which Joe is in the car with his daughter, he speaks a heavily accented English and deploys a stereotyped gestural vocabulary, but when he is in the past, with Jenny, the two of them converse fluently in English (as a way of signaling that they are actually speaking in their shared native language) and have a relaxed body language. This has the effect of allowing us to see Joe, in particular, in two very different lights: his personality, and motivations, are much more accessible to us in the latter scenes, and we are able to see how much his lack of ability to fully express himself in English contributes to his daughter’s inability to connect with him and “get” him as a person.
The dual-language device also allows Yee to undercut assumptions and stereotypes about immigrants, and particularly about a woman like Jenny, who has made the choice to fly to the US and marry a stranger for a green card. Despite having lived a rather sheltered life in her country of origin, Jenny is smart, sophisticated, and surprisingly hip (both her wardrobe (costumes by Susan Tsu) and her musical tastes are on trend); while she doesn’t know a lot about living in America, she is in other respects far more savvy, capable, and flexible than the rule-bound and planning-obsessed Joe. They are a mismatched couple, but much like the woman in Bowie’s song, “she’d have taken anything…she wants the young American…” and Joe is her ticket to a life with choices. She is no passive victim of circumstances, as the stereotype of the mail-order-bride might have it, and by giving us access to their early negotiation into the relationship Yee lets us see how clear-eyed and courageous a woman like Jenny might be. And as in the Bowie song from which the play gets its title, she wants more, and in wanting more, she eventually helps both Joe and Lucy recognize their own American dreams.