American Night: Ballad of Juan Jose

*Denver, Oct 2011

Imagine a show that has a bear, a Nike shoe factory, electric scooters, mariachi bands and a live game show, among others. One also has to consider the nine actors playing over 80 different roles, including a sumo wrestler, a Japanese game show host, Bob Dylan and Jackie Robinson among others. But this mixed bag of unpredictability and variety is not what gets "American Night: Ballad of Juan Jose" a standing ovation every night at the Ricketson Theatre in Denver, Colorado. 

The play is one of the funniest piece of social commentary I have seen. It is rowdy, energetic and full of heart. Developed by the LA theatre troupe Culture Clash and playwright Richard Montoya, "American Night" originally opened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to rave reviews and had to be extended due to high ticket demands. 

Cast of American Night 

Cast of American Night 

The comedic and boisterous mash-up revolves around Juan Jose, played by David deSantos, a lone Mexican immigrant and his journey to become an American citizen. We begin with Juan Jose cramming for his US citizenship test. As he does this, Juan Jose falls asleep and enters a spirit dream. Entering as an innocent bystander, he is soon participating in historical events whether he likes to or not.

In this realm, he finds himself in moments of American history like the 1848 signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe and meets the iconic figures that pepper US history books: President Teddy Roosevelt, adventurers Lewis and Clark and their Native American guide Sacagawea, baseball legend Jackie Robinson and Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Even Jesus Christ made a disco-dancing appearance. 

Montoya went the extra mile to include individuals who were forgotten or never written into the history books into the plot lines, giving the play significant depth. The courage of African-American nurse Viola Pettus and her legendary service, which included members of the Ku Klux Klan, during the 1918 flu pandemic in Texas was brought to light. As was the honourable actions of Ralph Lazo, who stood up for justice and voluntarily joined his Japanese-American classmates to the Manzanar internment camp, where over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during WWII. 

For many in the audience, these names are a first. One of the most powerful aspects of theatre is its ability to bring stories to life, especially of the faceless and voiceless and unknowns. Each and every one of them has become part of the American fabric. There is the good and the bad. As for the bad parts like the internment camp and signs that read: "No Dogs, No Negros, No Mexicans", Jackie Robinson tells Juan Jose that "the sign is not America. It is a part of it, but not the whole of it."

The myriad of characters Juan Jose meets act as guides, showing him the lay of the American land. And ever the diligent student, Juan Jose flips through his flash cards whenever he has a spare moment between historical acts.

Humour and action is deftly used by Montoya in strategic ways to buoy the story from scene to scene. Never dipping into a bleak lecture on social injustice - how can it when a Mexican stand-off between a Ku Klux Klan judge and an African-American cowboy was broken up by a Mexican immigrant swishing a stuffed rabbit like nunchucks and the cast dons US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) vests dancing to Vanilla Ice's "Ice, Ice, baby"? 

References to pop and local culture are abound. Name-dropping rising football star Tim Tebow or the hippie town of Boulder and the local Naropa university drew laughs from the audience. It is the sense of familiarity that helped the play resonate with the audience which was a largely homogenous one in Denver.

 
 

DeSantos gives a sweeping high-energy performance, playing Juan Jose's hope and despair with equal dramatic measure that tugs at the heart strings. As his long-suffering wife, Dena Martinez is a joy to see onstage, especially when she sings the popular 1920s song "Tonight You Belong To Me."  And it utterly conceivable to see her play the 15-year-old Sacagawea and Joni Mitchell other scenes. Rodney Lizcano nails the role of Don Bernardo Cuoto, playing him with flair and cheek. Viola Pettus was fully and powerfully realized by Daphne Gaines's portrayal. While Richard Azurdia's gun-totting Teddy Roosevelt, sobbing large Mexican gentlewoman and old Japanese man loudly reciting a haiku with a fishing rod in his hand are hysterical. While Ruy Iskandar slides into his role of flamboyant six-inch-zebra-platform-wearing-and-nipple-tassle-turning Japanese talk show host and a virtuous bespectacled Mormon elder with ease and poise. All nine actors are credible chameleons as they shed one role and take on the next, never missing a beat...or a costume change. 

Yet under the theatrical flair and slapstick, fancy projections and period costumes of this 90-minute production lies the heart-rending stories that have laid the foundations for both the play and America as a nation. The issues of immigration and the atrocities and injustice afflicts immigrants in America are still as relevant today as they were 200 years ago. Culture Clash plans on taking the show to the border regions and challenge the audience there.

"I know the show can be funny, that it can blaze with break-neck speed but we must also dare to continue to tap the blood-root of the play's darker truths," writes the collective. I think they have succeeded in doing so. The sharing of these truths and shedding light upon a largely ignorant audience is the first step. Then the immigrants of America can only hope a dialogue that can lead to bigger actions can commence.

Photos courtesy of @ Ricardo Montoya & Ricketson Theatre

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