American Night: The Ballad of Juan José looks at the immigrant experience in the United States through a sardonic, but brutally honest lens. The play is written by Richard Montoya and developed by Culture Clash and Jo Bonney, with Jonathan Mascone directing.
The story follows an ex-cop cramming on the night before he is to take his citizenship exam. He ends up falling asleep and being transported through key points in American history. On his Bill-and-Ted-meets-Wild-West journey, he encounters mages of xenophobia, racism and discrimination interspersed with traditional “heroic” historical figures.
From the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico signed over land rights to the US, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers, Louis and Clark exploring the frontier, the internment of Japanese Americans at Manzanar during World War II and even the story of Emmett Till, a black teenager beaten to death in 1955 for flirting with a white woman–all these historical injustices flash by the audience with strange humor.
Culture Clash is able to tell a story from the perspective of those who have experienced discrimination, rather than outsiders telling it from an out of touch perspective. As such, it’s easy to miss some of the subtle but hilarious jabs and pokes the play makes throughout the entire show. It can get to the point of being overtly Chicano/a, you’ll find yourself being the only one to laugh at specific cultural jokes others will miss.
And with the current debate over immigration reform, ‘American Night’ hits home for those of us that are impacted either by immigration and/or discrimination, whether personally or through Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. While the laughs are sweet, one is left with the bitter, copper aftertaste of the realization that despite the comedic lens, the scenes can’t help but reveal the atrocities that the characters endured.
The latest version of the show is now running at the California Shakespeare Theater through June 23rd.