Edited by Liam Collier and Jaclyn Jermyn
Through Goodman Theatre GoodWork, our education and engagement programming, we encourage cross-generational conversations about the world around us. Each year, our InterGens program unites high school students with participants from GeNarrations—our year-round storytelling performance workshop for adults 55 and older—to devise an original piece of theater. In the spirit of InterGens, which begins its fall 2020 session this week, we invited Barbara McBee, a former news director, journalist and reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who has been writing with GeNarrations for the last four years, and Louisa Darr, a Minnesota-based student actress and a past participant of Strike! The Youth Political Theatre Project, to have a conversation about what the concept of the American Dream means to them.
Barbara: I wasn’t told about the American Dream. I am Creole—family from Texas and Louisiana—but I’m a third generation Californian, and what I observed was powerful women who pioneered in their work, who maintained relationships, who hunted, who fished, who educated themselves, who had children, who stood up in extraordinary ways. People talk a lot about balance. I didn’t see balance, what I saw was one foot in front of the other. You got married, you had kids, you found a way to take care of them. And the men were doing their thing, oftentimes not at home.
No one said, as it was in the 50s, “Buy a house. The American Dream.” I came to understand by watching—I put together, okay, you could work, you could have a relationship, you could have children and you got a house. You got something of your very own. If you worked hard, you could maintain all of those, if that’s what you wanted. You had to be fearless sometimes, and courageous, and sometimes stand up, because life in America for people of color is very different.
Louisa: That’s really interesting to hear, Barbara. With the “American Dream,” we just finished reading The Great Gatsby in school—I had to write an essay about this and I still don’t understand what it is. Nobody ever gave me a blanket statement of ‘American Dream equals blah blah blah’. I saw it for myself. I am the daughter of an immigrant from the Philippines and my dad is white, but he also worked with a missionary organization across the world. I have a sister who’s adopted from China. I’ve been surrounded by multiple cultures all my life.
When I first moved from Chicago to Minnesota, I realized there’s an image here that everybody wants to attain. It’s very, “white picket fence, you’ll know you’ve succeeded once you’ve gotten this.” I thought that was my definition of the American Dream. There’s a checklist that I made when I was like nine: I’m gonna get a house with a dog, and I’m gonna get married and have kids. I think it’s changing now. The American Dream looks different for everybody. I remember sitting down with my mom and dad and I was like, ‘We live in a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago. How are you guys happy? I have all these friends who live in the South Loop, who live in these amazing apartments. How are you happy where you are?’ And they said, ‘Our dreams look different than everybody else’s.’ I think that was the first time I understood that it’s a myth, the American Dream.
Barbara: My revelation—having had my own business where I—with a partner—worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. At 29, I bought my first home and I worked like mad, fabulous cars parked in the driveway in Silicon Valley. And my business partner drank me out of my business, stole everything from me. At 32, I said to myself, ‘Okay, what is happiness?’ Because here’s the manifestation of the American Dream. I have achieved a certain financial success. I am working like a dog. I have all this stuff, and, as long as it took to build it, it could be gone in a couple of months. I had been chained to these material things because somehow, insidiously, this is a manifestation of who I’m supposed to be at X age and I don’t like it. I was not waking up with the thrill or the joy.
Louisa: I’m applying to colleges and I really want to study theater and acting. I’m really excited, even with this pandemic, to get started. But every time somebody asks me, “what do you want to be when you grow up?’ and I say, ‘I want to be an actor,’ there’s an immediate reaction of ‘what’s your backup plan?’ I know, at 16, that if I went to any other profession right now, even if I did make more money than I would acting, I would just be so disappointed, like soul-wise, that I didn’t at least try.
I’m in Minnesota—it’s the hockey capital of the world. I’ve had arts funding cut from my school to go towards new locker rooms and I’ve seen firsthand how the American Dream does not include new ceramic classes or Shakespeare classes. It means something else. It’s just never been ‘the American Dream is romance, art, literature.” It’s always been more masculine activities.
Barbara: That’s what I was thinking. When I was a kid in high school, girls could not take shop, they could not do archery. There was a collection of things we weren’t allowed to do. We typed. Oh my, we did shorthand, mandatory typing and shorthand. We cooked. I don’t cook. The world has been defined by men and masculinity and the good old sports teams. I had a dialogue with a man who’s a former coach. This man said ‘well, we’ve seen the Black Lives Matter movement before. Why don’t we just get back to the game?’ I’m sorry, no, we have not. My generation and behind me, how long did it take for them to march across that bridge? Young people now have access to modalities and media that we never had. On a dime you can make thousands of people come. This is not the protest march of the 60s.
I am so proud of all of you. I have never missed a pride parade. I was in the street when Harvey Milk died. Our Bodies, Ourselves—a historical women’s manual, there were two copies or three. We collated it underground by hand. We signed it out like a library book and we passed it around. Now it’s worldwide. You all are taking your objections to the schisms in this country to places I could never dream of because we didn’t have the technology.
I think a new generation is looking at what’s valuable and you have the courage to say, you know what? We don’t like it and we’re gonna take the rubber bullets and we’re gonna go to jail, but it’s time for it to change and demanding that we do the work. I am delighted.
Louisa: I’m really proud to be a part of this generation. I’m also really glad I was born to a family that’s so aware of everything that’s going on. I definitely have friends who, I’m slowly realizing, are closed off from the world.
I love school. I love history, but I think my generation is realizing how censored some of it is. I think the reason why they don’t teach us about the Japanese being interned or a lot of the bad stuff that Americans did to the original people who lived here, is to keep the image of the American Dream. It’s been an attempt to bring back this whole patriotism type thing to make kids be like, oh we’re so great. We’re the superior nation.
Barbara: Americans hold this phantasmagorical image of ourselves. You know, “we’re the greatest, we’re the richest.” We’re not. We are interconnected through the positive, through the negative, through the struggle. I want us to remember our shared humanity. I have great hope that we’re going to find our way out of this. I have great hope in our youth.
Louisa: As an American, I think we’re all learning. I’m learning every single day and I think everybody just needs to be open to listening more. I think everybody would be a lot more empathetic and understanding once we read more, we learn more, we see more, and stop closing off and ignoring things just because it makes us uncomfortable. So that’s my dream for this country.