By Liana Irvine
True West Surround Programs Co-Producer
“When we telling this story, I want people to just sit back and just look, and see like, this is really happenin’. And they do this [Black people ride horses in Philadelphia]... And this is life.” —Jamil Prattis “Parris” ("Concrete Cowboy", 01:39:50 min).
Welcome to True West’s brotherly reunion where skewed perception of one another’s achievements and desperate attempts to individuate from each other make the walls of their Mother’s home engulf us. Their lives come together in this play: Austin who finds safety in the suburban-complex-maze of a wife, kids, and car; and Lee who wanders through the brutal deserts perusing others’ belongings for his taking. Just like all families who’ve immigrated to the United States, these brothers are searching for security within its “amber waves of grain” and surviving the acculturation¹ stress of becoming American. Some people learn to hide themselves by modeling what they see; others resist losing their cultural identities while these 50 States demand for us to “be one nation”; and some come to realize the vapidness underneath the American Dream. In their own ways, they’re in the wild west – meandering with “how to be American,” finding the treacherousness within their actions, and navigating this landscape founded by exploitation and erasure of bodies of color.
As these brothers are face-to-face, we see them find a shared hope of being Hollywood screenwriters. This iconic entity is the sculpture of the Ole’ West; the geographical nexus of three deserts; and the predictable cause of sunburn on pale shoulders in convertibles. As they write the treatment for their “True West” Hollywood Movie, they conjure a story of masculine revenge, wide open skies, and horse-powered chases. However, they don’t add a plot point about the realities of corralling cattle and working in fine dust. Because Hollywood, with its John Wayne, dominates the screen and embeds itself into the American psyche, other realities of cowboys aren’t conceivable until introduced to them.
In 2021, Concrete Cowboy (dir. Ricky Staub) showcased the Fletcher Street Riders, and how Cowboys of Philadelphia have been and will continue to be their own kinds of Western Cowboys. Today, this Asian American production steers Sam Shepard’s True West to highlight the contentions from the idolatry of the American Dream. Both of these concepts: Black Cowboys in West Philly and Asian artists in a Shepard play, may have never crossed your mind, our playwright’s, or our actors’ – yet we’re all here to take in this story.
When you hear “cowboy,” do you picture John Wayne with a gun on his hip or Jays in stirrups strolling across 53rd?
Recommended Reading for Young Readers: Prairie Lotus, Linda Sue Park
¹[ə-kŭl″chə-rā′shən] The modification of the culture of a group or individual as a result of contact with a different culture. For more information, please read Acculturative Stress and Mental Health: Implications for Immigrant-Origin Youth by Sirin, Sin, Clingain, et. al from the PubMed: National Library of Medicine.