Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

I Pledge Allegiance

September 06, 2010

l - r: Richard Montoya, René Millán, and Herbert Siguenza Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2010

One of the new initiatives spearheaded by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival under its recently appointed artistic director Bill Rauch was a major play-commissioning project entitled American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. The project, under the direction of Alison Carey, is the largest series of commissions in the festival’s history and will result in 37 new plays from a diverse group of leading American playwrights on topics related to and inspired by American history. Up to 15 of these commissions will receive full productions in Ashland over the next decade and the first of these plays, American Night: The Ballad of Juan José comes from L.A.’s own Culture Clash collective. Now as much as I’ve come to love the loose association brand of sketch-comedy-as-theater that Culture Clash has produced for any number of venues in Los Angeles and elsewhere, they seemed like an odd choice to kick off a major new initiative for American history plays.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. American Night is extremely funny and better yet has an immense amount to say, and not just about the way we as a nation construct our own history, and what it means to be an American. The work is a series of comic skits, but they do lead somewhere very worthwhile. The overarching conceit is that a recent immigrant from Mexico, Juan José, is currently in the throws of studying for his citizenship test the night before the big exam. The play is filled with actual examples of test questions (some of which are projected on the corrugated tin backdrop) and returns to them again and again as a unifying device. Juan José falls asleep on his books only to enter a 90 minute fever dream in which he finds himself drawn into stories of great Americans, many of whom were immigrants themselves at one time, but who have been forgotten or written out of history books. From African American cowboys in West Texas at the turn of the last century to Australian-born labor organizer Harry Bridges, these voices add to the story of America’s history often with a sly smile. Juan José is also exposed to the racism and hatred that have made up the country’s past as well, with visits to the Japanese-American internment camp at Manzanar in the 1940s to a modern day town hall meeting complete with tea-baggers and not-so-thinly-veiled xenophobia.

There are too many funny cameos from historical figures to mention here, but the superb OSF cast, which centers around René Millán's Juan José outdoes itself. Culture Clash’s own Richard Montoya and Herbert Siguenza appear at various points in this American circus and their respective Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond impersonations are worth the price of admission alone. They aren’t pulling any punches here and go after racism of all kinds in an increasingly complex American picture. They're not afraid of politics either, and a closing segment on the recent immigration debate is one of the show’s highlights. But oddly enough, even with all its sharp edges, there’s a patriotic heart to American Night. As much time as the play spends on Juan José’s ambivalence about pursuing American citizenship, it also expresses quite eloquently at times exactly why he should bother doing so in the first place. It may be comedy filled with the most transitory of topics at times, but Culture Clash’s American Night proves to be just about the most perfect way to start a very big project on the very big topic of American History and identity.

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