Georja: Richard Montoya's new play, American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose, at the Kirk Douglas is a hilarious and touching look at a Mexican immigrant studying for his U.S. citizenship test. It's the night before the exam, and he's fraught with anxieties about his family in Mexico, as well as his abilities to remember American history facts. Using flash cards, he studies late until he dozes off and spends the night dreaming of characters and episodes from the past. Interestingly, so much of U.S. history is intertwined with that of the native and Spanish people who first settled here and in Mexico.
Gerald: The dream metaphor helps excuse the disjointed feeling at times of the events you see. Montoya, himself a veteran political cut-up, is obviously very comfortable and facile with improvisation as a way of developing his ideas. This piece, which was initiated under the auspices of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, comes across as improvisational and off-hand, yet masterfully done.
Georja: René Millán is a handsome and likeable hero who spends the night encountering wild and wacky characters who shaped American history, including that of some of his own relatives. Besides the laughs, the show educates the audience about some unknown events of the past three hundred years, such as Viola and Ben Pettus (played by Kimberly Scott and Rodney Gardiner), an African-American couple who risked their lives to care for Texas border-town infants who had succumbed to the influenza epidemic of 1917.
Gerald: What we get is an unexpurgated romp through the oral history of the United States, including some of the folk stories we never got taught in school. Amazingly (or not) Montoya and Culture Clash know the stories, and they are letting the rest of us in on the secrets.
Georja: Richard Montoya plays Juan Jose's great grandfather, as well as a battery of other crazy people who enter and exit the stage as more and more outrageous characters. Some of the jokes are extremely topical and fresh, as when Montoya crouches over painfully and says he was shot "in the Santorums."
Gerald: At one point, the narrative freezes on the Woodstock stage circa 1969, and Montoya is up there, dressed in frock coat, impersonating Bob Dylan. This show mocks the frozen-Hippie left every bit as much as it teases the Tea Party right. (You'll get the point when you see Terri McMahon dressed in a twinset and carrying a designer purse with a gigantic Lipton tag dangling from it.)
Georja: It was fun seeing all the characters transform themselves quickly and entirely for the different scenes. Music and dance numbers were well choreographed (by actor Daisuke Tsuji) and added to the flavor and fun.
Gerald: The pace of the costume changes was dizzying. When Montoya came on stage later, he acknowledged the dressers, who get a real workout.
Georja: The show opens brilliantly with a lonely Juan Jose walking through fields, along railroad tracks, with beautiful moving scenery in the background. A few musicians onstage play a plaintive ballad tune. Soon they are joined by a funny Sousaphone player (Herbert Siguenza) whose musical farts anticipate the comedy which will soon follow.
Gerald: With all the jokes and humor and the fast pace, you might overlook the fact that this is a technically complex show, especially for a limited-budget production in a small theater. The background effects are multimedia projections, and there are hundreds of sound cues. Kudos to the production crew, who brought it all off seamlessly.
Georja: There is no end to the layers of humor from Montoya's spoof on Shylock, "If you tickle our testicles, do we not giggle?" to a masturbating bear, to a Latinized guide for (Jerry) Lewis (David Kelly) and Clark (McMahon) from Sacajawea to Saka-Chihuahua (played by Stephanie Beatriz) to proselytizing Mormon ICE agents (played by Kelly and Tsuji). Cultural and civic icons are all on the table, as in "the right to bear arms, but no smoking."
Gerald: I was struck by how this piece touches on such heavy material, including the wartime internment of Japanese citizens at Manzanar, and yet kept its light, breezy tone. This is not to say at all that the mistakes of our history are being trivialized. Far from it. The message of American Night to me was, "Democracy is messy." To all the social architects who want to "clean things up" and the brown-shirt wannabes who can't tolerate dissent, the lesson is, lighten up. This is how a free society rolls. It's difficult being an American. It can also be a lot of fun.
Georja: A "talk-back" Q&A session after the show, moderated by Douglas theater manager Eric Sims, brought out the topics of bigotry and craziness in America, as seen in the play. It begs the question of the audience, "Does this show make you want to be an American?" This question got mixed responses of pride and shame from the audience. American Night is a great look at American history through the eyes of an immigrant. It's important, especially when Ethnic, Women's, and Latin Studies are actually being banned in Arizona. I hope this show gets a lot of play. It is stimulating, as good theater should be, and the only way I would have had more fun would have been to have been one of those wackos on the stage myself!
Photos by Craig Schwartz
Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.
American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose by Richard Montoya, Developed by Culture Clash and Jo Bonney
March 9 - April 1, 2012 (Tuesday - Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm, Sunday at 1 and 6:30pm, no performance Mondays)
THE KIRK DOUGLAS THEATRE
9820 Washington Bl.
Culver City, CA 90232
(213) 628 2772 (Audience Services)
In-person sales are available at CTG Music Center downtown, as well as at Kirk Douglas box office 2 hours prior to performances.
Ticket prices $20 - 45 (Ticket prices are subject to change.)