If you could see a clear path between you and a life-changing amount of money, what would you sell to get it? Your jewelry? Your home? What about your secrets, captured by reality TV? Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET) pushes these questions into the spotlight with “Dream Hou$e,” written by Eliana Pipes and directed by Suz Pontillo at 12th Avenue Arts’ Mainstage Theatre.
The show opens with sisters Patricia (Adriana Hillas) and Julia (Antonieta Carpio), having recently endured the loss of their mother, preparing their childhood home to be sold on a home-renovation show that promises a turn of profits in exchange for invasive publicity. Under constant observation by cameras, a studio audience and the scrutinizing eye of show hostess Tessa (Holly Vander Hyde), the sisters are confronted by the gentrification of their neighborhood and have one last chance to make peace with their complicated relationships with “heritage.” Pipes doesn’t stop there, though. By utilizing the historically Latine literary form of magical realism, “Dream Hou$e” pulls the audience into a dance of magical sisterhood and moments of true, breathless horror.
As someone who’s lived in the Seattle area for my whole life, it’s no surprise how themes of gentrification can relate so immediately and deeply to local audiences. I’m told of a very different Ballard from before my time, and the stomping grounds of my adolescence in Bothell are today unrecognizable as the town I graduated high school from. Currently, the demolition ball swings over the Central District and Chinatown-International District (CID), whose respective populations of Black and Asian residents face displacement under plans of urbanization to appeal to whiter tastes. I know that someday not long from now, I myself will get priced out of the city I’ve called home, nearly no matter what I do.
“‘Dream Hou$e’ was [a script] I couldn’t stop thinking about,” Chilean American Pontillo said when we sat down together, recalling a time before she pitched the play to WET, which she is a member of. “Something I feel very passionate about is putting on more Latine playwrights — brown stories we don’t really get to see in Seattle.” Having lived in Miami and New York before moving to the Emerald City, Pontillo remarked that she seeks to “fill (a) void” of brown stories through her work in WET and in her own company, Queen City Theatre.
Julia and Patricia’s world is introduced to us through its changes. Their hometown of Hilo Villa, now called Hi-Vill (pronounced with the H), no longer serves its historical purpose as a mixed industrial and farming community and instead welcomes newer businesses while ushering longtime residents like the sisters out. The pattern is familiar: An influx of new commerce encourages more affluent residents to move in and then pushes out those who have lived there for generations. In response to Hi-Vill’s upward direction, Patricia admits, “Hi-Vill is only valuable if we leave.” In their own ways, both sisters find themselves complicit with the gentrification of their community, whether by going to the new, trendy coffee shop over the mom-and-pop cafe or being open to whitewashing their own names and stories on TV.
As a brown person affected by the pressure to assimilate away from my cultures, I can imagine the pain of being torn between letting my identity loose into the hands of reality TV and upholding my pride even at the cost of my livelihood or future. Julia, a social studies teacher, references patterns of colonization and oppression as she hesitates to authorize the renovation and eventual sale of their home. However, Patricia makes a point that sent me deep into my own morals when she retorts to Julia, “I don’t understand why having a heritage means I have to be poor.” She’s right. It’s in this way that the sisters represent a false binary of lifestyles that I and many of my brown contemporaries face: Why can’t we survive in our society and resist assimilation?
When the walls are at last demolished in “Dream Hou$e,” the full story of Patricia and Julia’s family is torn open to enable the open floor plan of Hi-Vill’s next gentrifier. But it should be remembered that Patricia swung the hammer first. To carry her own heritage doesn’t mean that she needs to struggle under the weight of her grief, and by taking the first swing at the wall, she attempts to take control of her own future. What is discovered under the wall, however, indicates a pervasive generational trauma — one that can’t be hammered away in one swing but that lives in all the house’s inhabitants and visitors.
Hostess Tessa, the only character to reference the audience (who in turn becomes the in-universe clap and laugh tracks), adds a layer of character to “Dream Hou$e” that speaks to a social issue in Seattle. Equipped with a smile and a flourish at all times, Tessa’s positivity and affirming style of conversation disguise the thorns of ethnic objectification that caused my stomach to twist into knots throughout my viewing. In between ignorant mispronunciations of the names of the sisters and their family members (except for the one who committed a crime), Tessa is quick to correct the sisters on their use of the phrase “master bedroom.” As Tessa utilizes the guise of political correctness to uphold and protect her own whiteness, I found myself laughing through the pain of how frequently these attitudes and defenses pop up in friendly-seeming spaces in town.
Past the grief, the gentrification, the gross objectification exacted by Tessa and the overstimulating mess of grief, maracas and strange new wall hangings, there is a safe space, described in the script as “Sister Space,” a function enabled by the magical realism imbued into “Dream Hou$e.” Magical realism, popularized first by Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, observes the cultural multiplicity of day-to-day reality for colonized peoples with an otherworldly lens. In Sister Space, Patricia and Julia can talk, be real and make decisions while Tessa and the onstage camera/dance-crew (William Douglas Johnson, Ayla Wren Wallace and Cassidy Mitchell) freeze in entertaining tableaus. Sister Space is further supported by lights (Hannah Gibbs) and sound (Andi Villegas), which offer a very focused, tunnel-vision type effect that puts the power of the sisters in the foreground. However, as the sisters show their real attitudes and extend trust to Tessa, she discovers a new avenue of sinister, cavity-sweet white-womanly empowerment, which is somehow enhanced into horror when the cameras can’t corroborate. Tessa weaponizes her whiteness and in turn challenges the sisters to earn her favor, Julia herself correcting Patricia to say “main bedroom.” Yet, Tessa’s deepest, most insidious goal extends beyond publicity and control — she wants to feel as cultured as she sees the sisters. By the end, Tessa contorts the sisters’ shared goal for profit into a plea for a part of Patricia’s smile, pliers in hand. With sharp physicality and a range of laughs likely downloaded straight from nightmares, Vander Hyde is terrifyingly brilliant in this role.
When I first viewed “Dream Hou$e,” an element of how the script functioned didn’t sit right with me. In a story by, for and about Latine audiences, only a brief portion included Spanish language. Julia, following an interest in folk tradition, sets up an altar using the Santa Maria she discovers in the house and interprets as a plea from her ancestors; she calls to all sorts of powers — the earth, time, her mother — in a mix of English and strained Spanish. This is when I realized that the entire rest of the script, including in Sister Space, was in English. I wondered to myself, did this script bend to the generally higher marketability of fully English scripts? Was Spanish included earlier, but removed for palatability? Surely, I assumed, the sisters both knew and spoke it. It wasn’t until I got to talk with Pontillo about that moment and about Pontillo’s goals in theater making, that I realized how narrow of a mindset I had kept from my own expectations of culturally-focused theater.
Pontillo asserted that one of her goals in directing “Dream Hou$e” was “for Latine people to feel like they do belong. They do have a voice, they do have a story — they do have that connection to that community regardless of the fact if they visited where their family comes from, if they speak the language, you are able to tell these stories, and these stories are yours.”
Despite neither sister conversing in Spanish, the story and script of “Dream Hou$e” is still unquestionably, absolutely Latine. I’ve seen plays about mixed relationships with cultural languages with few branching out to other aspects of life, but it took the broad-spectrum discussion on identity in “Dream Hou$e” for me to acknowledge how the toxic objectification of culturally specific stories has affected the way I think about and analyze theater. I have very little knowledge of my own heritage language, and I realized after discussing “Dream Hou$e” that I had created a barrier of access to my own stories. Pontillo recognizes a simultaneous hunger, however, for Spanish-language and bilingual theater. Citing inspiration from Milagro Theatre in Portland, she mused, “I think people get so hung up on [bilingual theater] selling, that they think it’s not profitable or ‘We can’t do it.’ … People want to see different stories. I’m hopeful.”
“Dream Hou$e” may be staged in Capitol Hill, but its reach and supporters extend through the Seattle region. Entre Hermanos, a Latine LGBTQIA+ organization based in the CID, interviewed Pontillo in Spanish and spread the word about the show to its community. WET has extended show discounts to other local organizations, offers English and Spanish captioning and even has pay-what-you-can ticket pricing to reduce barriers to entry.
Reflecting on audience members claiming that they don’t see stories like “Dream Hou$e” in Seattle, Pontillo said, “The reason we don’t see these stories is because people don’t think people will show up — So show up.”
“Dream Hou$e” carries a lesson for artists like me who find themselves stuck in the mix of palatability, authenticity and survival: Everyone’s approach to survival will be different, and it’s easy to let those differences divide us into oblivion. While Patricia and Julia sold their house to move on with their lives, I would put a lot on the line to stay where I am now. All three of us deserve the power and resources to fulfill our wishes. I’m not sure I’ll ever live in a time when I can live off of art that concedes nothing to whiteness. Artists of color are allowed to survive artistically and to thrive culturally in our art, and the goal should be to reduce the wall between that perceived binary and not feel forced to pick just one.
“We are more powerful if we work together,” said Pontillo, of marginalized artistic communities.
12th Avenue Arts hosts two shows this September that draw communities close and warmly invite those yet to know the organization better. When I was waiting in the lobby for “Dream Hou$e,” a mix of English and Spanish in the air around me, I also noticed people signing in ASL on the other side of the room while waiting for “Autocorrect Thinks I’m Dead” from Sound Theatre at 12th Ave Arts’ Studio Theatre. All my favorite theater lately has been the kind where I’ve become a guest to other cultures and experiences, and the lobby itself began that journey. “Dream Hou$e” beckons from the start: Come on in, the door is unlocked.
Read more of the Sept. 20-26, 2023 issue.