Port of Entry: A Topical Start to Play by Play 2023

Port of Entry playwright Talya Kingston.
Port of Entry playwright Talya Kingston.

Tonight, I watched the first of six plays read as part of the Play by Play Festival 2023 at A.P.E. Gallery, presented by the Northampton Playwrights Lab. The series continues over the weekend.

The play was Port of Entry, set in a small New England Airport called Hampshire, and the cast was two Homeland Security agents, Hank (Julian Findlay) and Chloe  (Kaliska Wiley), and a Jordanian graduate student, Jana (Lama El Homaisi), who is trying to return to the U.S. in February 2017.  A female narrator sets the scene for us, and repeatedly blurts out the famous never-ending aiport announcement about how the TSA will take away any unattended bags.

Up on the wall is a framed photo of Donald Trump the new president, who rolled out a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. right about then.  Outside, when the door opens, the audience can hear protesters declaring support for Muslims, shouting, “Let them In!”

The play’s script was topical, and relevant, and the actors kept the momentum going with dialogue that was both realistic and poignant.  But a reading is a reading, and it takes a minute or two to adjust to pantomime actions and reading from scripts versus straight acting.

Julian Findlay and Kaliska Wiley in Port of Entry by Talya Kingston.
Julian Findlay and Kaliska Wiley in Port of Entry by Talya Kingston.

I recognized Agent Chloe Rudder (Kaliska Wiley) from her performance last month at UMass, in The Hatmaker’s Wife, a completely different role from tonight’s reading. In that play she was a reticent Eastern European in a surreal setting, in tonight’s reading, Chloe was an American faced with becoming a gatekeeper, and watching her colleague take advantage of a Muslim woman’s helpless position, when he solicits a bribe from Jana.

Chloe is not at all sure she wants to be “one of us” defending the so-called ‘greatest nation on Earth’ against adversaries who don’t appear to be very hostile like this graduate student.

Talya Kingston’s story involves some intrigue about a substance that Jana has brought inside her suitcase, strange chemicals that she technically should have completed paperwork to bring into the country, but it’s vague and not at all an obvious offense.

Neither agent is sure whether she’s guilty of anything but Jake goes all in with declarations about how he can detain her as long as he wants…he proffers her passport back to her and then no–he pulls it away, the ultimate power move in an airport.  He takes her bags and even gasp, her pocketbook, all in a Trumped up show of force that only makes the agents look stupid.

Mixed with the dialogue where he tries to paint Jana as a threat, he’s also trying to put the make on Chloe, the newest member of the airport’s Homeland Security squad, who just graduated from college and isn’t taking the bait to go sing karaoke with Hank and the gang after work.  “Can I call you Chloe” Hank says, coming across as simply creepy, especially when he notes that she doesn’t have to worry about adding creamer to her coffee with her good figure and all….no, no, no, we all agree with Chloe.

Hank reminded me of the awful guy in the Liberty Mutual Commercials in the yellow shirt who talks to the Emu…thoroughly  bombastic and simply dumb sounding.  He demands that Jana remove her hijab to prove her hair color is the same as on her passport, and takes the luggage, and in a final act of complete jerkiness, pretends that there is a $200 fine that Jana has to pay right this instant. Oh, well, he’ll take $100, wasn’t that nice?

The back and forth keeps our attention, and it would be fun to see this play acted out with costumes and props.  After act one is over and we sense that Jana is no longer going to be detained, it seems like they had a good ending there.  The shorter second act, set a month later, showed us that Chloe has eased into hanging out with the gang at karaoke, and at one point we watch a her do a spirited rendition of the famous Fenway sing-along song, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” joined by Jana.

The point here is that sometimes you run into people you’ve wronged when they live in the same neighborhood as you.

It wasn’t clear whether Chloe and Jana would become friends but Chloe tells Jana that she is ‘one of the lucky ones,’ for being able to get through–thanks to the saintly (NOT!) behavior of Hank and her. At one point we hear Hank threaten to keep Chloe’s former boyfriend from entering the U.S. from Canada, because he can.

Noble work?   I don’t think so.

Northampton Playwright’s Lab: Play by Play, a Festival of new play readings. A.P.E. Gallery 126 Main St. Northampton November 30-Dec. 3, 2023 Port of Entry, The Fade-Away Advantage, The Building, Haunted Houses, Hedges, The Birds The Birds The Birds.