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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
American Night: The Ballad of Juan José
By Jon Magaril
The show opens with Mexican police officer Juan José (the rock-steady Renë Millán), illegally crossing the border, which sparks one of Montoya's most pointed jokes: “if America wants to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, who do they think will build the wall?” While studying for his upcoming citizenship test, Juan José — I guess having two stereotypical Mexican names raises him to the level of an archetype — falls asleep and embarks on “a spirit dream,” a time traveling crash course on the hidden history of American racism.
He lands first in the thick of the Mexican-American War of the 1840's. Like Fractured Fairy Tales' Sherman and Peabody, our hero gets plucked from a bystander position into a pivotal role, in this case as signatory to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which cedes enough territory to the U.S. to create ten more states. Arguing that it will “make Mexicans illegal aliens,” his fellow countryman threatens to kill him if he puts pen to paper. An American general threatens to kill him if he doesn't, promising in return to care for him “as a father does to an illegitimate child.” Juan José signs, with sound effects straight out of a Looney Tune.
The clashing mash-up of tones and time periods keeps us on our toes. Without stage action that directly raises our hero's personal stakes, the production has to earn our interest moment to moment to keep the momentum going — sometimes with thrilling inventiveness, often with silly but sly juxtapositions. Storied tour guide Sacagawea, wearing an Ugly Betty-ish retainer and carrying a Starbucks coffee cup, ushers Juan Jose even farther back in time to the Lewis and Clark expedition. When in doubt, the production relies on facile non sequiturs. A Rush Limbaugh contraception joke here. A Whitney Houston joke there (“What? Too soon?”).
Montoya's pointed insights always pull the play back from the brink of burlesque. As Juan Jose starts to identify with the plight of other ethnic minorities, the play's purview expands. The Native American guide reminds Juan Jose of his pregnant wife (both played by the luminous Stephanie Beatriz) whom he's promised to send for once he's settled in. Juan José's next two time leaps take us to Texas' 1918 flu epidemic, where African-American Viola Pettus (a persuasively no-nonsense Kimberly Scott) nurses even the children of the KKK, and then World War II's Manzanar internment camp, where Mexican-Irish teen Ralph Lazo voluntarily joins the imprisoned Japanese-Americans in a show of solidarity. Balance is all here. Ballad commingles unsung heroes with famous figures, seriousness with humor, to resettle the American historical and cultural landscape.
As the acts of prejudice and inhumanity mount — with appearances by Jackie Robinson, Emmett Till, and Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio — so do Juan José's doubts about becoming a citizen. “Are we not a country built by and for immigrants?” “That was a long time ago.”
American Night reaches its emotional climax when his progenitors return, cloaking him with talismans from their earlier appearances. Swathed in their support, in honor of their experience, Juan José stands ready to become a citizen. He may be a “man who crossed a line” in a country that's “crossed him,” but the play ultimately sees the U.S glass as half full by defining Juan José as “a man walking with an American desire.”
While Montoya's message isn't nuanced, it's certainly worthy. The stagecraft is both. Jo Bonney gets the best out of everyone, especially a multi-talented cast whose ebullient versatility never strains for effect. All but Culture Clash's Herbert Siguenza and Montoya have been members of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival acting company. Their bravura selflessness serves as a persuasive advertisement for the value of the repertory system. Neil Patel's sliding flats of corrugated metal ground the production in Juan José's present circumstances; the set pieces, like ESosa's costumes, subtly match the sensibility of the scene. Shawn Sagady's hellzapoppin' projections serve as our GPS, orienting us in time with up-to-the-minute style.
American Night: The Ballad of Juan José is a swift kick to Uncle Sam's rear. The sharp broadside doesn't sting, but it leaves a boldly entertaining mark.