AMERICAN NIGHT: THE BALLAD OF JUAN JOSE
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
During playwright, Richard Montoya’s introduction to “American Night,” we see a handsomely built, Juan Jose (Rene Milian) walking his way to the United States accompanied by a band of musicians who are singing a cynical, Mexican corrido (folk ballad). During his long trek in the hot sun, Jose reveals that like every immigrant in America, he is determined to seek a better life for himself and his family. The scene shifts and Jose is struggling to prepare for his citizenship examination. His mind begins to wander as he contemplates the irony of American history, and the fact that a good portion of Mexico, the very place where he is studying to become a citizen, now belongs to the United States. Exhausted by an evening of practicing his “fact cards” he falls asleep.
“The Dream Sequence” form is often used in classical tales and it works very well here. It gives Montoya, an eighth-generation American himself, an opportunity to create some very clever satire based upon the historical material his character, Juan Jose, is studying.
Whether by coincidence or not, “The Ballad of Juan Jose,” also appears to have followed the form of another American corrido, called “ Ballad For Americans,” written in 1939 for a WPA project by John La Touche with music by Earl Robinson. Paul Robson and Bing Crosby popularized the work as each singer made recordings of it during the 1940’s and it was frequently played on the radio during World War II. What makes Montoya’s work and this ballad similar is the fact that they effectively portray the many kinds of immigrants who came here. The final words are:
“Out of the shouting...out of the cheating”
(Note: In spite of these discouragements)
“I believed it and I believe it now...
And you know who I am…”
(Background voice asking)
Who are you?
Both works happen to describe the Louis and Clark expedition, various American patriots, the plight of Indians and Negroes in our country and folks “...who were the very same people made America great!” But most interestingly, as a so-called folksong, over the years, the words to “Ballad For Americans,” kept changing along with the political climate and the individuals singing it. And, Montoya’s play is also kept as current as last night’s news.
It helps to know your own history, something about immigrants, the American labor movement and our current political events -- especially the backgrounds of our presidential candidates. The audience is bombarded with many characters and such wonderful, material, that after a while, the numerous, face-paced episodes tend to become slapstick. Too much “stuff” can water down the impact of a work. Rene Millan plays his role with believable sensitivity and Shana Cooper directs a versatile cast in this very worthwhile Yale Repertory Theatre production of "American Night." Go to enjoy it!
This review appears in “On CT&NY Theatre” October/2012