12:48 PM CDT, July 21, 2013
Most people think of theater as being for the benefit of an audience. But, truth be told, a healthy slice of the art is principally for the benefit of the participants and those who love them. This is especially true of drama involving young performers who learn about ensemble, creativity, craft and leadership as their family and friends watch from the seats. We critics tend to shy away from those events; the main criteria in play are something other than the proficiency of the work or its benefits to a stranger.
The Albany Park Theater Project, one of Chicago's more remarkable artistic institutions, is different. Given that Albany Park is neighborhood both with soaring possibilities (teenagers hailing from all over the world live within its gateway boundaries) and with severe social problems (it is an economically deprived section of Chicago with its share of crime), there's no question that the mostly high school-age kids who finds their way into its programs can have life-changing experiences. One could read it in the deeply committed faces performing at the Goodman Theatre, which hosts an annual APTP production each summer. This year, it's "Home/Land," a passionately performed, company-devised piece about immigration or, more specifically, a howl of collective anguish in the face of what the piece posits are demonic U.S. immigrations laws. This is a subject close to the hearts of those who grow up in Albany Park, and this is a theater most compelled by what is on its community's mind.
But you don't need to know one of these kids, or even their neighborhood, to gain from this piece. That's partly the longtime insistence of the group on the highest artistic standards: The stakes rise at the start of "Home/Land" — which is a fusion of many young immigrants' potent stories — and they stay intense. The movement work here (choreography is by Stephanie Paul and Maggie Popadiak) is just gorgeous, and, as in previous Albany Park works, artistic director David Feiner and his team reveal their skills at, to use the technical term, wrangling big clumps of teenagers — so that stirring pictures and trajectories are the result. Then again, wrangling is not really what they do at APTP: the images might be shaped and honed (the set designer Scott C. Neale has come up with a vivid visual montage of dislocation), but they flow organically from the young people themselves.
You would not describe "Home/Land" as a balanced piece about this controversial topic: At no point does it really consider the details of how immigration policy should be reformed, the impact of cheaper immigrant labor on, say, the struggling working class in America (perchance just one generation removed from being immigrants) or whether any restrictions at all on cross-border movement have moral validity. The black-clad agents in the piece from Immigration and Customs Enforcement — what bureaucratic fool came up with acronym ICE? — wander darkly through the piece like taciturn villains in a summer Hollywood blockbuster. "Home/Land" also has a few parodies of mass culture, such as a TV game show where the deck is stacked against the immigrant so the natural-born citizen can win. These sections have their amusements. But they are easy targets, and they devolve into cartoons. I expect more from this group, frankly.
No piece of theater has any obligation to be balanced; indeed, this is a passionate and well-argued piece of political theater that might well help some powerful people in its audiences see the human costs of a clearly broken system (the immorality of prison-like immigration detention centers, filled with those who wanted only to feed their children or feel free, is revealed with particular force here). But the best art is always the most complex art; the amazing young people in this group are artists who should embrace that truth.
Their work is at its best when born in the truth of oft-painful experience. When argued with vigor and fullness but coupled with the optimism and hope of youth. When expressed with the understanding that no global-scale change can come easily, there always being winners and losers. But change will come, and the young people of the Albany Park Theater Project will be a part of the reason.
When: Through July 28
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Tickets: $10-$25 at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC