Behind Picket Fences: In Sam Kebede’s EthiopianAmerica, the American Dream Masks a Common Nightmare

(l-r) Simon Gebremednin, Gabrielle Lott-Rogers, and Freedom Martin in EthiopianAmerica.
Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux Photography (Definition Theatre Company)

There is palpable energy prior to a theatrical production; a current of excitement that buzzes through an audience anticipating new work on the stage. At the press night for EthiopianAmerica, the newest production from the Chicago-based Definition Theatre Company staged at Victory Gardens, there was also a profound feeling of family, as several members of the city’s entrenched black theatrical community joyfully reunited, gathered yet again in support of their own.

Appropriately, family is the theme of Sam Kebede’s tragicomic one-act play, which brings us into the home of the Kifles, an Ethiopian-American family living in Southern California amid the “hope” of the Obama presidency. In a narrative that heavily (and appropriately) references pop culture as synonymous with American culture, we are first introduced to Johnathan (Simon Gebremednin), the almost hyperactive eldest of the Kifles’ two first-generation sons. As the audience filters in to take their seats, “Johnny” tirelessly—and hilariously—dances to an array of pop, R&B, and hip-hop hits as father Girma (Joseph Primes) soundly sleeps nearby, with younger brother Daniel (Freedom Martin) intermittently loping through the room, interrupting Johnny’s solo dance party.

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(l-r) Freedom Martin (upper left) Simon Gebremednin (center), and Joseph Primes
Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux Photography (Definition Theatre Company)

It’s a stage set for some serious comedy, and the ensemble cast, which includes Gabrielle Lott-Rogers exuding heartbreaking warmth as matriarch Elizabeth, certainly delivers. But behind most comic acts is profound tragedy, and the Kifles are no exception. Contrasting the buoyancy of EthiopianAmerica’s clever dialogue and all-too-familiar family dynamics, a different frisson of excitement builds on stage as tensions mount, punctuated by throbbing light and sound cues that indicate all is not well within this white picket-fenced American Dream.

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Directed by Sophiyaa Nayar, herself an immigrant and person of color, the transition from witty to wounded is painful to watch—and necessarily so. The Kifles are wrestling with layers both unique to immigrant families and universal: the struggle of foreign-born parents struggling to communicate, connect and garner respect from first-gen children; the sacrifices most parents make for their children to thrive; the blessings and burdens of blackness in America; the cultural clashes of the past and future; and the verbal and nonverbal ways in which trauma is taught, tolerated and inherited.

In the end, we are left contemplating the façade of happiness, an apt metaphor for the American Dream itself.

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Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux Photography (Definition Theatre Company)

As stated on its website, Definition, a black-helmed, multiracial theater company that boasts theater veterans Phylicia Rashad, Chuck Smith and Ron OJ Parson on its advisory board and KiKi Layne as an ensemble member, “prides itself on leading the way as an anti-racist multicultural organization that gives a voice to underrepresented communities. Our mission is to tell language-driven, relationship-oriented, socially relevant stories.” Leaving Victory Gardens on Tuesday night, it was undeniable that what we’d witnessed was a brutal reality for far too many. (On a personal note: I couldn’t help but hug my mother, who’d accompanied me).

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EthiopianAmerica is a gripping work from the talented Kebede, a first-gen Ethiopian/Eritrean playwright, standup comic and actor with double degrees in Neuroscience and Theatre Studies with a Minor in Biology. His deftness with his subject matter is striking; from the pervasive shade of sibling rivalry, to the outsized ambitions America represents, to the nuances of navigating language barriers, the Kifles ring true, making their shortcomings all the more tragic to witness.

Also true? Family is the one bond you never can never completely escape.

Definition Theatre Company’s EthiopianAmerica is in production at the Richard Christiansen Theater at Chicago’s Victory Gardens through June 9. Tickets are available here.

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Correction: 5/16/19 at 10:34 a.m., ET: A previous version of this article misspelled director Sophiyaa Nayar’s name. It has been corrected to amend it, with apologies.

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About the author

Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.