Review of the Play ‘EthiopianAmerica’

“EthiopianAmerica,” is a new play by Sam Kebede making its world premiere at Definition Theatre in Chicago. (Photo: Simon Gebremedhin and Freedom Martin in "EthiopianAmerica" by Definition Theatre Company/ by Joe Mazza)

Chicago Tribune

‘EthiopianAmerica’ really captures immigrant, teenage lives as they are lived.

The children of immigrants long have written plays and novels about what it’s like to be a first-generation American, trying to build a life in a new country under the watchful eyes of foreign-born parents.

In such works, mostly penned by the young and the restless (you know, Eugene O’Neill, Ayad Akhtar and so on), these parental figures are most usually severe, determined and troubled figures whose own lives involved great risk and who are determined that their offspring will recognize the importance of an education that might help them thrive and prosper in a new world these parents both admire and deeply distrust. For their part, the kids want to respect the traditions and ancestors of whence they came, but also make their own path in a country with different priorities. Their work is usually about trying to reconcile the pull of two forces that seem to be thrusting them in different directions.

“EthiopianAmerica,” a new work by Sam Kebede now in its world premiere by Definition Theatre, is one of those plays, the work of a first-generation American with Ethiopian-born parents. But it’s far more interesting and original than most. That’s partly because of its topic: When did you last see a play about Ethiopian Americans? I have known some members of that community in Chicago very well, and over a long period of time, and, for much of “EthiopianAmerica,” I was thinking it was time to get on the phone and make a recommendation, until Kebede took his play in a different and more critical turn toward his father’s generation of men. Even so, I think “EthiopianAmerica” would be widely respected.

That’s because Kebede writes about domestic life (in California, but if could be anywhere in America) with real veracity. Anyone who has teenage kids (I have two myself), or tough parents, can relate to the inter-generational struggle that fills this play. Kebede really gets the clash of the authority figure and the young person, striving to find a place in a changed world, and he does so with real understanding of what it is like to be the child of someone born in a different country. (It’s not easy.)

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