The Play

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 981

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Green Card begins with a preshow tape loop lasting about twenty-five minutes. Voices, often speaking simultaneously, recite a litany of racist comments describing the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Saxon, Celtic race, and the alleged inferiority of Jews, Mediterraneans, Central and South Americans, Irishmen, and Japanese. A map of the United States appears, projected on a screen, while the scene in front shows a nineteenth century gentleman reading while a woman wearing a flag dress sleeps in the gallery. Amplified fragments of “primitive” music are heard from time to time.

Gradually members of the company enter from all sides of the theater, some reciting simultaneously segments from the taped script, which describes how Anglo-Saxon men have mastered the world, while Jews are “in business.” The nineteenth century man recites the Statue of Liberty poem, describing the “Mother of Exiles” who lifts her lamp to the “homeless, tempest-tossed.” Meanwhile, another character claims that certain groups’ inferiority is attested by their physiognomy, which he suggests is a kind of cruel joke of the Creator. The projection on the screen shifts to faces of the latest waves of immigrants to the United States.

Jesse, a young Latino, appears as a stand-up comedian who delivers a series of insults and racial epithets. The projections constantly change, showing fragments of advertising, street signs, brand names, and other bits of Americana, while The Doors’ “L.A. Woman” plays in the background. Raye, as a Jewish man, speaks of the persecution in Lithuania which drove his family to emigrate. His almost sentimental description of their sacrifices is lightened by his account of receiving “nice sandwiches” and seeing his first banana. The women of the cast surround Raye and call out what he should beware of in this new land: swindlers, thieves, loan sharks, and people who make friends too easily.

In a communal letter home, the women recount the blessings of the United States, and Raye declares his love for his new homeland. Each of the players uses a different accent to describe the food, dress, or customs of another nation. Then Jessica, Rosalind, and Mimi insert their bourgeois comments about having a “theme party” or meeting an architect from France—an interesting contrast to Raye’s description of his family’s poverty. George speaks from a microphone in the audience, speaking in an “oily” voice of God’s support for people making a living. Jessica, as a Jewish woman, goes through the audience offering pieces of cake, and then Dana, as Marshall Ky, speaks from the gallery, telling of all the luxury he gave up when he came to the United States.

In a section titled “English,” slides of American signs and icons are projected as various cast members describe how they learned English. Jessica talks of the peculiarities of the differentiation in English between the imperfect and past perfect tenses, and then a taped voice asks them to tell the difference between such phrases as “burn up” and “burn down.” Ellis Island becomes a game show, with participants given multiple-choice questions about fine points of the English language. Many of the questions focus on idiomatic usage; losers are sent back “to where they belong.”

The issue of assimilation is viewed from two perspectives: that of immigrants, who are trying to become Americanized, and that of established Americans, who worry that their institutions are being undermined by “idol gods.” Mimi appears as a newswoman interviewing cast members, who take on the exaggerated accents and mannerisms of stereotyped Vietnamese, Italians, and Japanese. The next section, called “Immigration,” has cast members asking myriad questions typical of immigration service forms. What follows is a collage of words, names, and phrases derived not only from the culture of the United States but also from Spanish, German, and French culture; here again, various languages intermingle. Alma talks about her life as the cleaning woman for an affluent American family, and then the barrage of phrases continues at an accelerated pace until Jesse delivers a monologue recounting his experiences in El Centro after being detained for illegal immigration.

Act 2 has a pre-prologue, with the set changed to Southeast Asia and Central America. Under full houselights, George puts on an ethnic costume and tells of how the Spaniards came to conquer his people, how he tried life in the city and then returned to the country. With Asian music in the background, the actors perform a Vietnamese puppet dance. This segment also recounts the history of native people’s resistance to colonial intervention.

In a section titled “Religion,” Jesse, as a Jewish comedian, discusses how the Jews killed Christ. Then Dana, speaking as Marshal Ky, discusses the role which religion played in the politics of his region. The stage becomes a jungle with projections on the floor and a tape of locusts and jungle sounds playing throughout. In counterpoint to the taped description of the woods near Dvaravati, Mimi describes Asia from a caricatured tourist’s perspective: She found Saigon “sexy,” Phnom Penh “pure,” and “little Pol Pot outfits” adorable.

In “History,” various cast members tell of the atrocities of torture and oppression in various countries, while David Byrne and Brian Eno’s “Mountain of Needles” plays in the background. Josie, Alma, Jessica, and Jesse tell of gang rape, cutting out tongues, and cigarette burnings; other cast members sew dolls and stuff them with red cloth. While film clips of the fall of Saigon and the battles in Nicaragua and El Salvador play, Sid Vicious sings his version of the Frank Sinatra song “My Way.” The entire company recites the pledge of allegiance to the United States. The final segment, “Dying in Your Dreams,” has the words “die” and “dream” alternating, as a taped woman’s voice gives a coroner’s report on an unspecified victim. The play closes as action freezes with the company of refugees and immigrants in line, waiting for a bus.

Dramatic Devices

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Green Card has so many dramatic devices that one might describe the play itself as performance art, without the typical plot or development of scenes found in more traditional drama. Akalaitis’s work is controversial because of her use of minimalist sets, onstage costume and character changes, and multimedia slide, film, and music shows. Some audience members find themselves frustrated by the bombardment of music, simultaneous monologues, ritual dances, and visual stimuli.

Akalaitis’s purpose in presenting such cacophony and blurring of information is to force audiences to experience the play emotionally rather than regarding it with intellectual detachment. Viewers must choose the elements on which they focus; the theater is thereby more collaborative, active, and dynamic. Her method of completing a script is similarly unorthodox, with actors modifying the script, ad-libbing, and adding their own contributions to the final work. These devices lend spontaneity to the work of Akalaitis and to the acting styles of her company.

Versatility and concentrated focus are required of actors and audience alike, as actors change personae within single scenes. Aural cues dictate whether a character is a little old Jewish woman or a Vietnamese youth. Clothing changes sometimes aid the audience, but many alterations occur with no other clue than the shift in the actor’s voice and mannerisms. This kind of shifting is designed to emphasize the universal nature of Akalaitis’s subject. After a while, the blurring of characters created by constant changes underscores the point that this experience could happen to anyone.

The play has an equally flexible setting, with locales shifting from Los Angeles to Ellis Island, using just a hint of scenery to reinforce the change. Reminiscences of characters recall yet further reaches of place and time, from the shtetls of Russia to the jungles of Southeast Asia. Actors enter and exit from different parts of the theater, joining the audience at times to interact with them. This device again implicates the audience, calling upon it to consider its own responsibility and involvement in policies which might be creating new refugees.

Just as physical space is used to involve the audience, music provides ironic comment on the action of the play. For example, Sid Vicious’s version of “My Way” plays simultaneously with documentary footage from Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the fall of Saigon, calling into question whose “way” created the political consequences shown on screen.

The closing scene is accompanied by haunting music from a bamboo flute. The play’s ending has been considered by some to be a grim indictment of the United States, but other critics have seen in the image of immigrants waiting for a bus an element of hope. Despite the eeriness of the flute’s death knell, the final taped words, “Will estrogen keep you young? Cooking in the West Coast Way,” may humorously suggest that life, after all, continues.


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Sources for Further Study

Cohen, Debra. “The Mabou Mines’ The Lost Ones.” Drama Review 20 (June, 1976): 83-87.

Kalb, Jonathan. “JoAnne Akalaitis.” Theater 15 (May, 1984): 6-13.

Kramer, Mimi. Review in The New Yorker 114 (July 18, 1988): 66.

Marranca, Bonnie, ed. The Theatre of Images. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1977.

Mehta, Xerxes. “Notes from the Avant-Garde.” Theatre Journal 31 (March, 1979): 20-24.

Petzold, Roxana. “JoAnne Akalaitis.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.


Critical Essays