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To stage Asif Majid‘s play The Cassette Shop, the black box theater at Anacostia Arts Center is transformed into the enponymous vintage music store. In this venue, the stories of local asylum seekers, recorded in 2021 by dramaturg Sarah Priddy in collaboration with the nonprofit AsylumWorks, come to life in a documentary-style production that not only give these voices a platform, but creates a narrative depicting the experiences people seeking asylum encounter daily once they arrive in the United States.
Theatre Prometheus commissioned playwright Majid and the Storytellers, a devised theater company composed of asylum seekers, to create a full-length play from the recordings. The work has been in development over the past two years. In addition to directly transcribed monologues, the play’s dialogue is reportedly derived directly from interactions in workshops hosted by Theatre Prometheus and Majid. In this sense, The Cassette Shop is not strictly documentary theater in that it stages verbatim responses to a contemporary social issue. It’s better defined as a community-based project that connects local asylum seekers to theater making. As such, this production creates a platform for sharing personal stories and making a political standpoint known.
As if frozen in time, but preserved on tape for a future generation, the interviews come to life in the characters of Luciar (Kartika Hanani) and Alé (Shan Khan). Alé is the fatigued but optimistic owner of the cassette shop. Luciar enters the shop one day, and the two soon forge a connection over a love of music and discover they share a similar position in regards to their immigration status. The play reveals a degree of magic when the tapes begin to play on their own, and several unrelated stories from other asylum seekers (transcribed directly from the aforementioned interviews) seemingly possess Luciar and Alé as the two actors embody these tellings on stage. The Cassette Shop is an ambitious idea, but at times the efficacy of its content is lost to the underdeveloped relationship between the two main characters, who are similarly dealing with a script too vague for the actors to sufficiently explore this relationship.
The cassette shop, however, is more than an arbitrary (but still a very cool) setting for these stories to come to life. The commercial sale of music broadly begins with vinyl-based recording. As vinyl technology advanced into the mid 20th century, records got faster and smaller, moving from 78 rpm to 45 and finally, what we’re most accustomed to seeing at 33 ⅓ rpm. Vinyl records are at this point, a retro artifact, a collector’s item. But before CDs—and eventually digital streaming—hit the music market, the portable and convenient cassette tape was all the rage from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s. Cassette tapes today might feel nostalgic, but are primarily obsolete. With so few uses for tapes in the 2020s, the technology feels somewhat displaced in time.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, the United States received 117,490 applications for asylum in 2021. Initial decisions have reportedly been made on less than 35 percent of those applications. All other cases, each representing an actual person, remain in limbo—a no man’s land, which this play seeks to explore. (In another iteration, The Cassette Shop was reportedly titled In Limbo). United States immigration law typically requires an interview with the asylum applicant to determine if there is reasonable cause for that person to fear returning to their home country. Running with this emphasis on personal interview so often neglected when considering the politics of these processes, interviews and transcriptions becomes a key element to this play.
With respect to the play’s development, devised theater, much like drama therapy, can be an incredibly powerful way to forge community through creativity and provide a necessary outlet for narratives that might otherwise pose a risk to personal safety and security. Cassette Shop implies that immigrant stories and a person’s ability to tell them are an under-examined, but a crucial component of the asylum process. Whether those personal narratives are dramatic, intimate, romantic, sorrowful, or tragic, each belongs solely with the person who shares it. The Cassette Shop respects this intimacy, yet Theatre Prometheus found a unique way to bring these otherwise overlooked stories to light.
Theatre Prometheus’ The Cassette Shop, by Asif Majid, devised by the Storytellers, and directed by Lauren Patton Villegas, runs through May 20 at Anacostia Arts Center. theatreprometheus.org. $25.