“American Night” The Ballad of Juan José

Reviewed by Dale Reynolds

Culture Clash are at it again, this time mightier than ever.  Never seen them?  The three talented thinkers that make up CC – Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza and Ric Salinas – have built a strong reputation for themselves over the years (since 1984, actually) for their insightful and humorous takes on how Chicanos/Latinos have fared in Anglo America.  Such shows in the past as Chavez Ravine, Water & Power, Palestine, New Mexico, A Bowl of Beings, Zorro in Hell, etc, have shown their collective power.

Richard Montoya, Rene Millan (RT). Photo credit: Craig Schwatz

Now, in the Los Angeles debut of the latest success, “American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose,” the themes of their previous work come to fruition in a goofy, historically-accurate (if skewed), examination of brown-skin immigration, along with the collective rights-abuse of other minorities (African-American, Asian-American, and a fleeting glance at GLBT-Americans.

The show manages to be both low-brow (puns galore) and highbrow (quips based on contemporary political figures, plus wit to die for).  Juan José, a Mexican national (René Millán), wants to come to America and become a citizen.  He meets up with some Mormon missionaries (David Kelly and Daisuke Tsuji) and, somehow – don’t ask how – is transported back and forth in American history, meeting such luminaries as Dr. Benjamin Franklin , Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea (whom JJ mis-pronounces as “Saka-chiwawa” – told ya it was low-brow), Teddy Roosevelt, the signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Manzanar Concentration Camp, the 1918-20 Spanish Flu (Kimberly Scott, Rodney Gardiner and Herbert Siguenza) Harry Bridges of the Dockworker’s Union, etc.  Great history lesson, as the facts are straight; just the execution is deliciously skewed.

 

 

Under Jo Bonny’s energetic  direction (and as co-creator), the nine-member, multi-cultural and -racial cast have enormous fun (especially during Ken Roht’s crazy-ass choreography) with their broad characterizations.  America has certainly had a dreadful history on race-relations (on-going still, as the play points out), so those who wish only for pastel-gouaches that color our fear of The Other, this is not your show.  For those who actually know a thing or two about their own history, it’s a safe, silly and valuable reinforcement of the virtues of acceptance and tolerance – lessons we can actually never have enough of.

Neil Pael’s visually-stimulating scenic design, ESosa’s elaborate costume design, coupled with David Weiner’s lighting and Darron L. West’s sound designs, all contribute to what is a wonderfully professional, witty and informative evening.  Go see it, now!

AMERICAN NIGHT: The Ballad of Juan Jose plays at the CTG Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232, until April 1st, 2012.  Tickets:  213.628.2772 or at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.