Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443

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Green Card is a play about the struggles of immigrants to the United States, but it goes beyond mere sympathy for their plight. It examines the connections between the policies and attitudes of the United States government and the responsibility of individuals in creating the bigoted atmosphere that greets most immigrants.

The form of the play, with its collage of voices and use of various media, is integral to its message. It re-creates the confusing welter of sounds and experiences that confront the refugee. The variety of characters and experiences also reproduces the variety of experiences of immigrants, from Latin American political refugees to such elite characters as Marshal Ky, who left powerful friends and expensive clothing behind him in his forced immigration. Attitudes range from that of the patriotic Jewish immigrant of the play’s opening to that of the hardworking, bitter maid from Central America.

An important element of the play is the conflict between maintaining one’s ethnic background and assimilating the customs and language of the United States. Certain voices, taken from such works as In Their Place: White America Defines Her Minorities, 1850-1950, depict the deeply entrenched xenophobia of those Americans who resent the influx of immigrants. Other voices are clearly critical of U.S. policies in Central America and in Southeast Asia. In several segments of the play, assimilation is portrayed as a form of cultural death for people with an ancient, proud heritage. However, while JoAnne Akalaitis criticizes United States government policies, particularly those of the Central Intelligence Agency, she does not neglect the injustices perpetrated by governments of other countries.

The play’s deliberately overwhelming mix of opinion and fact demonstrates that there are no clear-cut boundaries in matters of acculturation. While the opportunity to learn English is viewed as a privilege by the immigrants, it is also shown to be an absurd exercise. This notion is underscored by the central image of the play, the game show Green Card. The multiple-choice questions have answers requiring such subtlety and sophistication that even native speakers would find themselves puzzled, yet these are the kinds of questions that determine the fate of people’s lives. For example, Central Americans may be sent back to torture, prison, or death simply because they have an expression for money that differs from that of Mexicans—who, if they fail, are simply dumped out on the other side of the border. Akalaitis juxtaposes such scenes without comment, but her choice of details clearly indicates her political and ethical stance. She designs her play to make audience members consider their own place in the scheme of arrival and assimilation into American culture.