A ‘Night’ for the American ages

Milagro's "American Night: The Ballad of Juan José" takes a whirlwind dream flight through the untold tales of a nation

If he’d taken NoDoz the whole thing might not have happened. But Juan José, studying feverishly for his American citizenship test, inevitably falls asleep over his stack of books and facts and potential test questions (“Name the original 13 colonies of the United States”). When he falls asleep, he dreams. When he dreams, he dreams a fascinating whirlwind of encounters with people and situations who don’t seem to get mentioned in the textbooks he’s been poring over – or if they’re mentioned, their stories are a little different when they tell them themselves. And some of this stuff is, let’s just say, disturbing.

Holy smokes. Is Juan José going to end up just chucking the whole idea and heading back to Mexico?

Osvaldo Gonzalez, Shelley B. Shelley, Joe Gibson: ordinary heroes. Photo: Russell J Young

Osvaldo Gonzalez, Shelley B. Shelley, Joe Gibson: ordinary heroes. Photo: Russell J Young

American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, a swift and scattershot scramble through an alternate but no less real history of the United States, was developed and premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010, and since then has been freed to move about the country, getting little updates and fresh takes along the way. Written by Richard Montoya of the satirical performance troupe Culture Clash, it’s made hay out of its alternate viewpoint, considering history from the bottom up instead of the top down: what does the promise of the Constitution and Bill of Rights mean if you’re an immigrant or a black woman or a labor organizer or an Indian guide like Sacagawea or a black kid like Emmett Till, murdered in Mississippi for supposedly flirting with a white woman? When a place says “give me your tired, your poor,” what does it really mean?

Now American Night has landed in Portland, appropriately at Milagro Theatre, the city’s center for Latino performance and culture, and it’s been worth the wait. Director Elizabeth Huffman’s production is quick and cartoon-like, a Looney Tunes film reel of a show that plays up the script’s absurdist, caricatured aspects, sometimes at the cost of lingering for greater emotional effect over some of the more serious episodes. But it’s a kaleidoscope of a play, and kaleidoscopes keep on turnin’. The original Ashland production pulled out a lot of technical bells and whistles, and Milagro’s grittier version shows how well the show can do done with more limited resources: Megan Wilkerson’s lighting and set, with its simple lineup of entrances and exits that open and shut like vertical trap doors, make it easy to switch scenes with lightning speed; Sara Ludeman’s costumes and Sharath Patel’s nervously shifting sound design keep things snappy.

American Night is an ensemble play, with Ozvaldo Gonzalez at the center as dreamwalking Juan José and nine actors moving swiftly in and out of dozens of roles as antagonists and spirit guides. Juan José is a go-getter and an escapee, an honest cop in Mexico who got on the wrong side of the system and fled north, leaving behind his pregnant wife, who now has a child he’s never seen. He has his Green Card and is eager to gain citizenship so his family can join him in the U.S. – that’s why he’s working so hard. Gonzalez plays him as something of a wide-eyed innocent, surprised to learn that the armor isn’t always shining on the country he craves to join, but also adept at rolling with the punches.

Gonzalez with Garland Lyons as a surprising Klansman. Photo: Russell J Young

Gonzalez with Garland Lyons as a surprising Klansman. Photo: Russell J Young

The ensemble – Enrique E. Andrade, Orion Bradshaw, Michelle Escobar, Joe Gibson, Anthony Green, Heath Hyun Houghton, Garland Lyons, Louanne Moldovan, Shelley B. Shelley, with Adrienne Flagg providing voiceovers – is adept at producing quick sharp caricatures, moving like lightning from Teddy Roosevelt to anti-immigration strongman Sheriff Joe Arpaio to a hilariously caricatured Bob Dylan & Joan Baez to dockworkers angry over immigrants taking scarce jobs. Among the more intriguing tales Montoya tells are those of Viola Pettus (Shelley), a black woman in west Texas who set up a camp to care for victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic, accepting all comers, even Klansmen; of Ralph Lazo, a Mexican- and Irish-American teenager who voluntarily joined his Japanese-American friends in a World War II internment camp; and of Nicholas Trist, Luis Cuevas, and Bernardo Couto, who negotiated the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War in 1848, possibly saving tens of thousands of lives by ceding much of modern-day California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah to the United States – the same land now being repopulated by legal and illegal immigrants whose ancestors had been locked out by the signing of the treaty.

Montoya immerses Juan José in the stories beneath the ideals of the history books, introducing him to both heroes and antagonists outside the usual tellings. In a way, he’s preparing Juan José for the citizenship test you wish he’d be able to take: a more nuanced, complete, and less starry-eyed version of the American story. If the play is sometimes angry, it’s never cynical; if it’s instructive, it’s also open-hearted and consistently entertaining. A hard-to-resist charm bubbles along the shifting surface of this alt-history. Join this thing called America, it seems to urge Juan José. Just know what it is you’re joining.

Milagro artistic director Olga Sanchez led a wide-ranging and vigorous talkback after Saturday night’s performance, with playwright Montoya, University of Portland professor Rene Sanchez and Portland State professor Margot Minardi also on the panel. Sanchez likened the play to jazz, a composition with a strong structure allowing for lots of improvisation, and that seems right, both for the play and for the American experiment itself. Minardi talked about the phrase “revisionist history,” which is often used as a slam but which, she points out, gets to the heart of historical investigation: we are constantly shifting and revising, choosing to emphasize those trends and events in the past that shed differing light on the story according to the concerns of the present. And Montoya stressed that Juan José, who is introduced in his dream to a United States with warts as well as promise, is himself an opportunist, seeking a better life for himself and his family: it’s the strength of the immigrant experience.

Heath Hyun Houghton: stylin' in the internment camp. Photo: Russell J Young

Heath Hyun Houghton: stylin’ in the internment camp. Photo: Russell J Young

In the end, American Night is an intriguingly optimistic play, one that takes the country’s toughest blows, gathers its counterbalancing stengths, and emerges stronger. “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,” Winston Churchill once said, quoting a source no one seems to have been able to nail down. He also said, in a speech in the House of Commons, in 1944: “My idea of (democracy) is that the plain, humble, common man, just the ordinary man who keeps a wife and family, who goes off to fight for his country when it is in trouble, goes to the poll at the appropriate time, and puts his cross on the ballot paper showing the candidate he wishes to be elected to Parliament — that he is the foundation of democracy. And it is also essential to this foundation that this man or woman should do this without fear, and without any form of intimidation or victimization. He marks his ballot paper in strict secrecy, and then elected representatives … together decide what government, or even in times of stress, what form of government they wish to have in their country. If that is democracy, I salute it. I espouse it. I would work for it.”

Welcome to America, Juan José. Eyes wide open, you are now a partner in the ever-shifting experiment.


American Night: The Ballad of Juan José continues through May 23 at Milagro. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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