Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

American Night: The Ballad of Juan José
Los Altos Stage Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's reviews of The Revolutionists and Mothers and Sons


Adrian Torres, Carlos Diego Mendoza,
and Dan Cardenas

Photo by Richard Mayer
Maybe it was when I first heard the Mexican-American actor say "jew" for "you" or when his character talked about wanting to get into the "Jew-S-A" that I began to check out. After all, I grew up as a kid in an era when I remember—now with much embarrassment and regret—watching on black-and-white TV and laughing at Bill Dana's José Jiménez or Looney Tunes' Speedy Gonzales. So the "jew" hit me wrong, even though I knew going in that Richard Montoya's American Night: The Ballad of Juan José is seen by others as a celebrated, satirical romp through American history—one with a much-touted, world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010 and subsequent, well-reviewed performances across the nation.

But that one word, along with an early scene of corrupt, Mexican police trying to bribe a reluctant Juan José, where again the portrayals made me cringe more than laugh unfortunately left me in a mood that grew more and more irritated as I continued to watch the next near-two hours of Los Altos Stage Company's production of American Night: The Ballad of Juan José

The overall concept of the work is one I truly admire. A young Mexican immigrant, Juan José (Carlos Diego Mendoza), is spending one last night cramming for his next-day examination to become an American citizen. That dream becomes a nightmare as he falls asleep thumbing through his flashcards. His night is spent with a series of historical events and people—both well-known and totally unknown—parading past his closed eyes inside his sleepy head, telling their versions of American history. What he learns, which is important for all citizens to know, is that our history is marked by both heroes and heroines and by racist, murdering villains and bigots. For every event we can swell in pride remembering, there is somewhere a shadow occurrence that is abhorrent to recall and admit as part of the history.

What I did not like about the way this history unfolded before me was the blatant use of stereotypes employed by Richard Montoya and director Rodrigo Garcia (the Artistic Director of the Bay Area's much respected, Teatro Visión). Not only Mexicans, but members of a number of racial and religious backgrounds often become the stereotyped aspects of those who hate and ridicule them. Along the way, the kind of humor one would expect from Beavis and Butt-Head finds its way into his dream—everything from farts to our lead character suddenly pleasuring himself while imagining he is on a 1930s radio show. There are other crazy—sometimes a bit funny, sometimes not so much—appearances by the likes of a KKK-hooded baby, a raggedy grizzly bear being shot by a Teddy R., a rock-star Jesus, and a Mexican flavored-ices street vendor.

Much of the time, the play looks and feels like one that a bunch of college kids sat around and thought up while boozing on a Friday night and then decided actually to put on the next night in the dorm for their friends. What almost get lost are the parts of Juan's dream that feature forgotten heroes of our history and the stories that we need to hear. There is an African-American nurse (Nique Eagen) in 1918 Marathon, Texas, who saves babies from dying from the worldwide epidemic of influenza—not caring if they are the children of the local judge and KKK leader or of a bandit and his wife sneaking across the nearby Mexican border. A World War II Japanese internee at Manzanar (Paul Lee) tells the sad story of how his family ended up in that God-forsaken place while a white woman (Dana Cordelia Morgan) explains why she felt compelled to join the internment in order to help teach 3000 children locked up there without a teacher. Others whose stories we have never heard have a few moments to fit their histories in among the facts that Juan is trying to memorize for his test, but I feel their important messages come near to being lost amidst the irreverent and often irrelevant silly, bawdy, and not-so-often funny antics surrounding them.

When we in the audience suddenly find ourselves in the midst of a town hall meeting that is full of name-calling, accusing voices against the job-taking criminals currently invading our country, Juan's dream totally left me feeling stranded and looking for any exit from which I might escape. By then, his dream had become my nightmare of an evening—no matter the all-out enthusiasm of this Los Alto Stage Company cast of eight, the well-intentioned playwright, or that I may have just been having a bad evening, being unable to see the merits in all the off-the-wall, stereotype-laden humor overwhelming the story.

American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, through February 17, 2019, at Los Altos Stage Company, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos CA. Tickets are available online at losaltosstage.org or Monday - Friday, 3 - 6 p. in person at the box office or by calling 650-941-0551.


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