Juan Jose’s history lesson is the stuff dreams are made of. One moment he’s in the presence of Lewis & Clark and a bespectacled Sacagawea (he calls her “Saca-chihuahua”). The next moment he’s looking down the barrel of a hapless Ku Klux Klansman’s gun. Juan Jose’s dreaming transports him to a Japanese internment camp, to Woodstock and into the hot seat at a TV game show that will decide whether he becomes an American citizen.
American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose, now at La Jolla Playhouse, is a madcap and frequently potent lesson in U.S. history. It’s a new work by Richard Montoya of the intrepid Chicano-Latino performance troupe Culture Clash, last seen at the Playhouse in 2006’s uproarious Zorro in Hell. Directed by Jo Bonney and propelled by a cast that includes Culture Clash’s Montoya and Hebert Siguenza and seven others, American Night bristles with commentary about the profiling of not only Mexicans but all minorities that Uncle Sam marginalizes and scrutinizes.
Juan Jose (Rene Millan) is a young Mexican who yearns to be a U.S. citizen to make a better life for himself, his wife and their child. The dreams that visit him the night before he takes his citizenship exam cause him to think long and hard about his imagined better life. The episodic American Night is fast moving and rife with sight gags (a costumed bear, a sumo wrestler, a Teddy Roosevelt, a Ben Franklin and many more). It’s a jam-packed one-act that might have been two, but possibly director Bonney and Culture Clash felt an intermission would interrupt the flow. Tackling 200 years of American history is ambitious to say the least, and some sequences are more successful, and funnier, than others. That being said, when Montoya (who portrays a heavily armed revolutionary and a side-splitting Bob Dylan, among others) and Siguenza (comically brilliant as always) are on stage, everything seems to work.
The use of a back screen for words and graphics enhance this trip back in time, and a musical finale led by Siguenza as one of our hammiest pop singers is just the right capper for this American night, Juan Jose’s and ours.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat