Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured (front): Christopher Acevedo with the cast. Photo by Michael Brosilow
By Bec Willett
To attend Pivot Arts’ DON’T LOOK BACK/MUST LOOK BACK, directed by Devon De Mayo, you meet at the Chinese Mutual Aid association on Argyle. I’m told this is a devised ensemble-based immersive show based on the stories of the residents of the Uptown area. It sounds like my jam.
I arrive, check in, and am asked to sit in the waiting room. It’s sterile but used: typed instructions on colored paper tacked to fingerprinted walls, nondescript hums and whirs from office equipment motors. A video instructing us how to resettle in the United States from another country plays on repeat in multiple languages. Its casual illustrations in primary colors make it all seem so easy: like following one of those four-ingredient recipes that you kid yourself into thinking are going to work out.
We have our photos taken and are given forms to fill out. I’m surprised at the familiar heat spreading across my face as I realize that one of the forms is exactly that which I filed over a year ago and have been waiting for a response ever since. As an immigrant in this country, I have been in so many buildings and so many waiting rooms like this – rooms where you wait to find out if you’re good enough, if your life will change or remain, or if one missing number will return you to limbo for another year, or two, or ten. “Do you believe in luck?” ensemble member Samantha Beach asks us as she walks backward down a narrow staircase towards our next room. “I want to,” I think. But in this context? I don’t know if I can. Yet when it comes to immigration, as a white Australian woman my story is one of the least desperate of all those we will hear tonight.
The Uptown residents’ resettlement stories aren’t told or shown on a stage. The expert craft of the creators facilitates an audience journey through which we experience them. The protagonist is not singular, it’s formed by a fluid ensemble – joining, splitting apart then rejoining again. As they splinter off they lead us throughout the space, each time drawing us into a portion of the story through the use of a different style – from lyrical movement through immersive scenes reminiscent of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.
The direction and ensemble are especially effective in their use of contrast. So many of the scenes present the confusion and desperation of these people in these situations. This is exemplified in Sarah Lo’s citizenship interview where she demands answers to immigration questions – ones I’ve answered so many times. “Are you a terrorist? Will you tell the truth? What is the truth?” At some point, we are ushered into an ESL class. It is here that Christopher Acevedo’s cheery teacher forms such a juxtaposition to the rest of the experiences that you feel you must either laugh or cry. What makes these snippets so effective is that in the midst of all these uncomfortable questions DON’T LOOK BACK/MUST LOOK BACK’s ensemble and direction creates a safe space allowing for a truthful experience.
If you’ve ever wanted a window into what the immigrant experience is like, this is it. I implore you to make the time to see it and when you’re there open your mind to the experience. It will change your life.
DON’T LOOK BACK/MUST LOOK BACK runs through November 19th. For more information visit pivotarts.org.