Juan Jose is an ideal fella. He is giddy at the chance to adopt the United States as his country, his home after fleeing the grips of a dangerous cartel in Mexico. So, when he is sent out to learn about this great nation in order to become one of its sons, he embraces the opportunity and yearns to be a part of its future, its promise. Clearly, if he works hard and learns what he must, America will want him. Right?
There’s lots of great stuff to learn. Yet while plenty of this country’s history makes you cheer hard for the US Men’s National Soccer team or women’s gymnastics at the Olympics, the true history of this nation is much more complicated, much of it quite disturbing. You love this country, warts and all, but sometimes you just don’t want to think about how many warts there really are.
Slavery. Racism. Internment camps. Even babies born with KKK hoods make an appearance in this dream of American history which traps him.
Playwright Richard Montoya, he of Culture Clash fame and his script “American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose,” now running through Feb. 17th at Los Altos Stage Company, pulls no punches and has no interest in painting a picture of a nation that’s all baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet. Juan Jose (Carlos Diego Mendoza) learns this immediately, starting with that first lesson he studies for his citizenship test, the 1848 Treaty of Hidalgo, a treaty that annexed much of Mexico to United States control.
This historic event is the first thing that paints a not so rosy picture of the United States. Yet Juan Jose seems to take it all in stride. He is a bit of a buffoon after all, reminding me of another critical character in Chicanx theatre history, the jolly farmworker from Luis Valdez’ early Teatro Campesino acto “Las Dos Caras del Patroncito” (The Two Faces of the Little Boss).
For Juan Jose, there is much to learn in order to be prepared. And morphing into these historical narratives is an ensemble that carries much of the show. Despite some imbalance by said ensemble, each member of the group had their standout moments, playing multiple characters and figures in American history.
Director Rodrigo Garcia, the artistic director of San Jose’s Mexican-American theatre company Teatro Vision, keeps his staging moving at breakneck speed. It is quite clean, transitioning effectively through about five various entrances, utilizing scenic-designer Ting-Na Wang and his pragmatic set design to great effect. What is not covered in the set was utilized smoothly with the projection designs by Gary Landis.
There are certainly some standout performances. Mendoza set up some fine payoffs in his physical comedy and vocal choices, seeming to work a Speedy Gonzalez stereotypical accent, one that changes words like “you” to “jew.” It fits the play’s heavily satiric style, allowing for a sharper bite.
Other key performances lived inside the world of the ensemble. Adrian Torres is showcased as the de facto leader of the proceedings, creating every character he plays with chameleon-like tread and delightful body fluidity. His movement shows many touches of Chicanx theatre movement tradition, hints of Valdez’ El Pachuco character in “Zoot Suit” and a sharp commitment to sharing elements of yellowface portrayals in American performance history. Dana Cordelia Morgan is another who veered into large characters, grasping nicely a satirical, presentational style of acting.
Maybe the most effective component of the interpretation is its use of dramatic tension throughout. Notice the sad poetry of seeing Emmett Till smiling in the night, or even hearing Moonlight Serenade as images of innocent Japanese faces cascade onto the uneven walls, faces loaded with pain due to being forced to replace the warmth of their homes with the coldness of concrete walls in Manzanar’s internment camp.
But what to make of a show that moves rapidly, a show that fuses so many styles and directing choices. There are moments where I was a bit lost, trying to keep up with all the issues that hover in and out of the stage. So much history, so much anger, so much shouting.
But you know what? That is where we are right now, and if we see theatre as metaphor, how can we not watch what’s happening on stage and feel that this is exactly where we are in our own national conversations. In regard to that shouting, one of the most effective scenes is to hear each perspective, screaming all over the room, the audience forced to make their own decisions as to what side we land on. Notice how Juan Jose moves from hopeful to dejected to crestfallen as the disillusionment begins to overwhelm him. Juan Jose is so many of us, trying to keep up and stay afloat with toxicity oozing from this current presidential administration.
While the denouement felt clunky, it emphasizes a bigger point. Those of us who are Americans, even those of us who are always under a threat nowadays to be told to “Go back to your country,” have a complicated history with this nation, yet we are also fiercely proud of our contributions. Just because white has long been seen as the default American race does not mean that people of color are less American, or need to take a subservient seat to anyone.
Like Juan Jose, every day we are searching for answers, studying for our own exam. And hopefully there will be a time when an American night means that every single one of us, no matter how dark our skin, need not worry about the threats towards our bodies as night falls.
If we can just lie down peacefully and let the darkness make ebullient stars shine bright as we gaze up and rest until the next day, our tests can be passed too.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Los Altos Stage Company presents “American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose”
Written by Richard Montoya
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia
The Word: An sharp, satirical view of our nation’s history is equal parts chaos and anger in this effectively staged production.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Los Altos Stage Company
97 Hillview Ave., Lost Altos, CA 94022
Tickets range from $20 – $38
For tickets and information, call (650) 941-0551 or visit losaltosstage.org.