There’s no question immigration is a hot-button issue in America today. With protesters crowding the streets of America as our President sends out executive orders left and right, it’s a topic on everyone's mind, which makes Urban Stages' Angry Young Man, a play by Ben Woolf about a Middle Eastern surgeon who finds himself in hot water after making the move from London in search of a better life and work, all the more poignant. We spoke with director Stephen Hamilton and Urban Stages’ producer Frances Hill about tackling the immigration issue head-on, and how their approach to the piece helps inform, tackle, and ultimately… escape it.
What was it about this play that particularly spoke to you? Why was this one “the one” to do?
Stephen Hamilton: There were two things about this play. First of all, it’s written in a style that I had never attempted before as a director — it’s a zany comedy in the style of Monty Python and the Marx Brothers— and so that was a particular challenge for me [and] I was really drawn to it for that reason. I was also interested (and still am) in the fact that it’s a character who runs afoul both of hypocritical liberals and also white nationalists. [In that way], it shows plight from the immigrant’s point of view. And I felt was that really interesting.
Frances Hill: I think at this time, when immigration is on everybody’s lips, I like the fact that [the play] takes humor to explain a side of immigration and asks you to look at what a person goes through who comes into a new country, who is a surgeon (who has a profession), was really intriguing.
Also setting it in London, it takes the heat off the Americans. They can be a little bit more objective... but still feel the very real problem of the plight of immigrants in America.
Do you think adding the comedy makes this hot topic of immigration easier to digest? And Steven, how did you approach that comedic aspect to make it more digestible for an audience?
Frances: Well, sure. I think sometimes people can laugh and it’s easier for them to see [the issue]. If they’re just preached to or just given sermons they just kind of tune out, but [here] they see the comedy and they see the ridiculousness of how they react to something.
Stephen: [In terms of adding in comedy], it was written this way. Four actors are playing one character and then at the same time, they’re playing 12 more characters in 15 different locations?! So, if you look at the script, [approaching it with] this type of zany physical comedy…there’s really no other way to do it! (laughs).
Frances: Also, I’m trying to bring in a younger audience… and one of the reasons I chose this play was that I thought that it would resonate with them.
What goes into constructing a given season at Urban Stages? Do you choose plays with a given theme or social relevance in mind?
Frances: We do two MainStage plays a year, plus a Winter Rhythm [series around the holidays, involving a series of musical performers].
This year, we actually did [plays by] a Canadian playwright and an English playwright (we usually do American playwrights, so I was very pleased to have that diversity).
Our aim is to do something fresh, that’s never been done in New York, that’s something from a new playwright, and it’s much harder than doing a re-worked production of King Lear or Twelfth Night. I don’t set out looking for a theme either… I’m always just looking for the best writing. And [plays with] social relevance. Urban Stages tackle[s] issues that you don’t see elsewhere.
I always try to find something that is a little out there, a little on the edge.
Can you talk a little bit about casting the show? Were you always aiming for a racially diverse, immigrant-based cast?
Stephen: Originally, [when it was performed in London in 2008], it was written for and performed by four young white men.
Frances: [And we said] in this day in age, in the US of A, it can’t be four white men. It just can’t.
Stephen: I spoke with Ben [Woolf, playwright] and said, “I’d like to have women in the cast and it to be diverse racially as well.” And he was on board, so we went with it. And also, I couldn’t have the love interests [Yusef and Allison] be… they had to be cross-gendered. I couldn’t miss that opportunity.
Frances: And [in terms of effect], I wanted it to relate to more people. We want a diverse audience… that’s our brand. That’s our mission.
In the show, actors A, B, C, D all work together to portray Yusef and communicate his words. What do you think of the decision to write and perform the character in this way?
Stephen: There’s a theatrical complexity to it that has the potential for great fun. It can be a cause for wonderful obstacle, which is the essence of comedy. If it’s done well, it can be very satisfying for an audience. And I just think setting that up as the central challenge of the piece was really smart.
Frances: It’s [also] another way of storytelling. I think it’s creative, and I think it’s imaginative, and I think it works really well. That’s one of the key things that made me interested in the play. It was a different way of storytelling. And that’s what we have to do in this day and age. We have to look at new ways of telling stories.
I read that the surgeon was originally Eastern European (in UK production) but was switched to Middle Eastern for this presentation. Why the change and how did it affect the production, in terms of its message?
Stephen: Well, again this was done originally in London in 2008. Today’s issue for a New York audience has much more to do with immigrants from Middle Eastern countries than it does [immigrants from] Eastern European countries. Ukrainians and Latvians and even Polish… they’re not such a big concern here [whereas] in London ten years ago, it certainly was.
So, we wanted to find a way to make that adjustment for this audience… more relevant to New York experience.
Frances: It’s more relatable to the American issue. We’re so afraid of Middle Eastern people… who are they and what do they do?
[In theatre and life], you’ve got to be up with the times… with what’s going on now, there’s so much fear. What our aim was was to let people see these characters as people. Because we’ve got to understand and we’ve got to be accepting. You can’t use such a big blanketed statement like some people do. They’re not all going to hurt us. So, doing it in this way allowed us to humanize that a little more.
Stephen: The downside is that because it’s such a hot issue, [presenting the character as a Middle Eastern man] sets up an expectation in the audience’s mind that there is something more to this evening in the theatre than what they actually come away with, you know, in terms of political relevance. But it’s not [out to do that]. It’s entertainment. So, that’s the challenge [and I] couldn’t think of how to avoid that.
On that note, what do you hope to instill in audiences as they come away from this play? What’s your aim in that regard?
Frances: It’s really about play, P-L-A-Y. I think people forget that a lot… I want them to have a good time. and through having a good time — relating to the character and following the story — they learn a little and they identify something in themselves, perhaps.
Stephen: Again, it certainly does have a message about assimilation and acceptance, but it’s much more humanistic than it is political.
Frances: It’s not a new revolutionary story of any kind, but the way in which is told in this innovative, original and entertaining way is very new and inviting.
Stephen: It’s just 75 minutes of pure fun. And I guess… we didn’t set out to make it [a show with a strong political statement, but] if something happens and you come out of it with something more [than just that], that’s just icing on the cake.
Angry Young Man plays at Urban Stages (259 W. 30th Street), through April 9th. It will then transfer to the John Drew Theatre at Guild Hall in Easthampton, NY, where it will play from May 31st-June 19th. For more information, call 212-421-1380, or visit www.urbanstages.org.