American Night: The Ballad of Juan José
Two Mormons hover about Juan José (adept, versatile René Millán), a policeman who only wishes to pass the test and provide for his family. But he will soon find himself bombarded with various individuals and not-so-forgotten instances. There is Teddy Roosevelt (Richard Ruiz) who shoots a bear. Juan José meets Viola Pettus (Deidrie Henry) who was a self-taught nurse, a person who tended to those falling ill to influenza in 1918. Jackie Robinson (Austin Durant) comes on the scene. Actor Gregory Linington plays Harry Bridges who was a union leader in San Francisco.
The play was originally commissioned for the The Oregon Shakespeare Festival where it was produced two years ago. It now includes contemporary references to such individuals as Mitt Romneyand percentages such as 47. Moreover, playwright and actor Montoya brings the audience his version of Bob Dylan, alongside actress Nicole Shalhoub who must personify Joan Baez. Result: "Blowin' in the Wind." There is just enough KKK to remind us and a glimpse of Emmett Till in 1955, who, at the age of 14, was a Mississippi murder victim. Woody Guthrie sings "This Land is Your Land" as train cars (via projection) fly by in the background. The RFK assassination is briefly revisited ... Finally, an hour and forty-five minutes later, actor Ruiz, this time as Neil Diamond, concludes the proceedings with "America."
Shana Cooper directs this smorgasbord of, really, American nightmare rather than reverie, and she permits her actors to realize the full potential of the simultaneously ridiculous yet politically relevant sequences. Cooper, in 2011, directed a most imaginative production of Romeo and Juliet at Yale Rep. The current American Night is unique stuff. As satire, the play references difficult if not unbearably inhumane circumstances through caricature and humor rather than lofty moral statements. Many of the vignettes are laugh-out-loud funny. The theme behind it all recommends, however, that bias and its consequence should not be tolerated here or elsewhere.
René Millán has played Juan José in previous productions, and he performs with knowledge, intuitive feel, and grace. He grew up in San Diego and his parents were immigrants. Millan understands the role and has previously said of his character, "He can use humor and levity to turn a stereotype on his head." In many ways, the statement well applies to much of American Night.
For all of the references, which run from Rachel Maddow to The Tea Party, the script specifically addresses circumstances and themes omitted from more conventional accounts of American history.
Kristen Robinson provides a set which is able to accommodate rapid shifts from place to place. Martin T. Schnellinger shows an array of wardrobe selections, including a spiffy get-up for one very round hippie who indicates that he might be leaving this stage for Greenwich. And, by the way, it is virtually impossible to note everything; much has not been highlighted here.
The Chicano theater group Culture Clash and Jo Bonney should be applauded for their work on this project. Montoya, author and actor, is undeniably influential. It all contributes to a carousing eveningone which is brisk and filled with spice. The very first portion (and perhaps this is a necessity) is slowly paced. The hijinks begin soon thereafter.
American Night: The Ballad of Juan José continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through October 13th. For tickets, call (203) 432-1234 or visit www.yalerep.org.
- Fred Sokol