Culture Clash new play "American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose"

Published by on July 31st, 2010

Review: American Night at OSF in Ashland, OR.

Juan José (René Millán) thanks his backers in support of his citizenship (David Kelly, left, and Daisuke Tsuji, right). Photo by Jenny Graham.

I was in the audience on July 3rd at the New Theatre for the World Premiere of American Night. The play, written by Richard Montoya and Culture Clash and directed by Jo Bonney is the first production of OSF’s American Revolutions. The start of the United States History Cycle, a 10-year program undertaking up to 37 new plays about aspects of change in US history.

I was truly looking forward to seeing this play. I had heard about LA’s legendary Culture Clash, one of the best known Chicano comedy groups. Current members are Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza and Ric Salinas came together in the early 80’s to perform political comedy from the Chicano/Latino viewpoint. They have written a number of plays since that time. The buzz among the theatre attendees was that this production was another hit with Culture Clash’s off-beat brand of political comedy. Jo Bonney is an, Obie Award-winning stage director and co-developed the script of American Night.

American Night opens with Juan Jose, a Mexican immigrant leaving Mexico traveling a route that many have taken in the past. The long and exhausting walk of back country roads and seldom used old highways under the hot sun. Neil Patel, David Weiner and Shawn Sagady, all part of the set production team that brings this to life for the audience. As Juan walks and walks the background shows the moving landscape behind and before him as he treks toward his goal of the US. The setting and lighting and moving appearance of his trek brings you right into the action.

Juan José (René Millán) adds to his history book after meeting Viola and Ben Pettus (Kimberly Scott, Rodney Gardiner). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Skip forward and Juan has his green card is intensely studying The Citizen’s Almanac of American History for his citizenship exam the next morning. As he studies late into the night, he falls into a fitful fever-dream,helped along with whats playing on the radio. He finds himself part of key historical events which he has read from his almanac.

Juan is dreaming and he’s right in the middle of some of American’s famous moments. From the opening of the play fun is poked at everything from Juan having Mormon missionaries wanting to assistance in preparing him for his test. Within in his dream the journey explodes with hilarious humor and sadness all being very surreal. Rene` Millan` as Juan is a joy to watch as he brings the right combination of wonder and humor to this role. He’s sincere and you want him to past the test. In his dream he meets with a number of famous historical figures including: Woody Guthrie to George Washington, Lewis and Clark and their Indian guide, Sacajawea. When he encounters Lewis and Clark they are lost and Sacajawea when told by Juan she is famous and in history books. She thinks history would see her as woman who carried The load (wood for the fire) and did all of the work. Sacajawea, asks Juan “What will you tell them about me?”

“That your laughter and songs with your son around the campfire must have meant so much to these lonely and brave men.” Very moving and then Juan remembers he has a map in his almanac which will show Lewis and Clark the way, which he happily gives to them. Lots of rich, diverse stories and interaction is this short and fast moving 90 minute production.

The one thought I had about the play was toward the end a bit of an overload with the game show number based on popular TV shows. Seemed like everything was being thrown in at the last minute.

The acting is first rate by the all performers who have a multiple roles in this production. Jo Bonney has masterful directed Stephanie Beatriz, Rodney Gardiner, David Kelly, Richard Montoya and Kimberly Scott who are just a few of the actors who bring their experience to this production.

This premiere for the US history cycle is off to a roaring start with this production. For info about and tickets to Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, visit www.orshakes.org.

- Ethel W.


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