American Night: Dream or Nightmare -- It's an Adventure at Yale Rep
By Amy J. Barry
America’s attitudes toward immigrants couldn’t be more conflicted and politically charged than they are right now. In American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose, playwright Richard Montoya gives theater goers a refreshingly wide-angle perspective on the subject while shining a glaring light on the absurdities that surround the hot-button issue as Mexican immigrant Juan Jose tries to partake in the American Dream, against all odds, quite literally.
The darkly comic tour de force, developed by Culture Clash and Jo Bonney and directed by Shana Cooper, is making its East Coast premiere at New Haven’s Yale Repertory Theatre -- and is particularly relevant to a city in which nearly one-third of the population identifies itself as Hispanic or Latino.
The structure of the play is a clever take-off on a Mexican Corrido (folk ballad) -- which arose from medieval Spanish romances to describe the adventures of a knight errant.
The play’s protagonist Juan Jose (Rene Millan) is the “knight errant,” but his adventures could not be more convoluted and crazy making and are far from romantic.
The show opens with balladeers singing and strumming in Spanish with subtitles explaining that Juan Jose is walking his way to America -- emphasized by a receding projection of the countryside behind him.
We learn that Juan Jose was a policeman in Mexico who never took bribes, wasn’t involved in the drug wars, and has a wife and baby back home. He’s just a regular honest guy trying to make a better life for himself and his family.
Carrying his green card and civic flash cards, he meets with religious zealots who help him study for his citizenship exam, handing him the “Book of Mormon,” and telling him, “One day we will sit in the kingdom or the oval office.” He puts the book in his bag, along with a copy of the bestselling “Fifty Shades of Grey” -- just one of many humorous pokes at life in the U.S.A in Montoya’s satiric script.
Juan Jose begins his dream travel back in time and then forward to the present, dropping in on significant points in history where he meets an eclectic cast of characters performed by a splendid ensemble that switches costumes and personas on a dime.
He encounters Teddy Roosevelt, Lewis and Clark, Jackie Robinson, union organizer Harry Bridges, Bob Dylan…and such unsung heroes as a brave black nurse who protects him from a Klansmen trying to shoot him in 1918 -- everyone is trying to kill him -- and an innocent Japanese American man being held at an internment camp in California in 1941.
The one-act production is jam-packed and gets a bit bogged down in the middle with several elongated scenes, but picks up at rocket speed in the last third when the lights come up and we find ourselves in the middle of a heated town hall meeting with actors posed throughout the theater as politicians and citizens, handing off microphones, and engaging in irrational shouting matches. In one of the play’s many hilarious moments, a Tea Party enthusiast starts waving a gun around and yelling, “We want our country back!” as someone else points out that he has a right to bear arms, but no smoking is allowed.
Millan is convincing as the earnest, frustrated, and finally exhausted character, although his patience is almost too saintly in light of all the violence, bigotry, and stupidity he has to endure. But he does finally crack after being arrested for buying a pinata and threatened with deportation. Drifting in the ocean in a life preserver he wonders: “Never arriving, never existing...I left my family for this?”
But he perseveres through an obnoxious “Who Wants to Be an American?” TV game show, finally obtaining citizenship by getting all original 13 colonies correct. He is welcomed to the 99 percent with Neil Diamond singing “Coming to America” at thunderous volume.
With all its contradictions and mixed blessings, America ultimately takes in its tired and poor, and the journey has been worth it.
A round of applause to scenic designer Kristen Robinson, projection designer Paul Lieber, sound designer Palmer Hefferan, lighting designer Masha Tsimring, and costume designer Martin T. Schnellinger for their visual and auditory wizardry that keeps the audience glued to the stage.
Performances of American Night: The Ballad of Juan José continue through Oct. 13 at Yale Rep’s University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven. Tickets are available online at www.yalerep.org, by phone at 203-432-1234.
This review appeared in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.