What do newcomers to the United States want from this country? What do they bring to it? And what are the odds they’ll achieve an American dream that turns out to be, for many, only a tantalizing myth?
Such questions ripple through Imbolo Mbue’s best-selling novel, “Behold the Dreamers.” And though the story unfolds around the Great Recession of 2008, its canny observations and insights feel immediate today, given the increasing political and economic obstacles faced by immigrants seeking a better life in this country.
Book-It Repertory Theatre’s dramatization of “Behold the Dreamers,” adapted and directed by Myra Platt, faithfully conveys the saga of Jende and Neni Jonga, who have relocated to New York City from the West African nation of Cameroon with little to declare except their hopes and determination. This is also a story about class, and the couple’s entanglement with a wealthy American family.
The Book-It version has some tempo problems: It lags from too many short episodes requiring too many furniture-arranging scene changes. The production struggles early on to gain the momentum of the highly readable novel, and at two-and-a-half hours needs streamlining.
But the themes “Behold the Dreamers” considers are incisive, and the actors impart them with authenticity and force.
Book-It regular Sylvester Foday Kamara is compelling as the earnest, striving Jende, while Anjelica McMillan is equally engaging as his vivacious wife, Neni. With their young son, and a new baby on the way, the couple outstay their travel visas in hopes of gaining a permanent foothold in America — a possibility oversold by an exuberant fellow African (Marcel Davis), who has found his American niche as an immigration lawyer.
An intelligent, affable man and a hard worker, Jende wants to rise above subsistence living, and provide a more prosperous future for his family than he could in Cameroon. Neni wants more material comforts, too, but also the kind of professional and personal autonomy that few women in her native country enjoy.
Their prospects in the U.S. seem promising when Jende scores a job as a chauffeur for a Wall Street investment banker (Clark Edwards, played by David Quicksall). The post pays well and brings him into the orbit of Manhattan’s financial elite. Meanwhile, enterprising Neni takes part-time courses in her quest to become a pharmacist.
But Jende finds that toiling as an underling to the rich means being taken for granted and casually patronized by people who don’t even realize how they are exploiting him. It also means learning definitively that money cannot, to put it mildly, purchase happiness.
Using the amiable Jende as a sounding board, Quicksall’s semi-dazed power player Clark drifts through a midlife malaise. His insecure spouse, Cindy (the excellently tough and fragile Beth DeVries), mixes pill-popping and wine-swilling to blot her fears that she’ll be replaced with a younger model of trophy wife. Their two sons are, for their own reasons, also discontent.
Jende finds his duties involve more than carting these people from private school to office to lunch date. He is placed in a moral quandary when one unhappy Edwards spouse presses him to spy on the other. Neni also lands in a compromising situation with the family, when she helps out in their country home.
Though not much discussed here, the matter of race arises, too. When the Edwards’ younger son weeps one morning, Jende instinctively comforts him. But he frets that a cop might spot them, and wonder what a black man is doing in a fancy car with a white child in his arms.
Without resorting to caricature, Mbue unsparingly chronicles the power imbalance between Jende and his employers — like the ways the rich buy silence and loyalty with “tips.” And how Clark can simply ride out an economic downturn, while a potential job loss for Jende could be devastating.
To quote comedian sage George Carlin, “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Eventually, through a few sharp twists of plot, the West African couple is startled awake. And Mbue grants them an ending that, like their sojourn in America, is both sweet and bitter.
“Behold the Dreamers” by Imbolo Mbue, adapted by Myra Platt. Through June 30; Center Theatre, Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; $20-$50; 206-216-0833, book-it.org