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Theatre Review (LA): American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose by Richard Montoya at the Kirk Douglas

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American Night is the latest creation to spring from the fertile mind of Richard Montoya and then receive a wonderful production by Culture Clash at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The project started at La Jolla Playhouse and was developed by Culture Clash and director Jo Bonney.

The gist of the story is that a youngish immigrant, Juan Jose, a cop, (played by Rene Millan), is preparing for his citizenship papers using cue cards, trying to master the intricacies of American history and the Constitution. It is a test I think many of us would fail.

He is guided in his studies by two wacky Mormons (Hmmmmm?). He eventually dozes off and encounters some famous Americans, Jackie Robinson, the Ku Klux Klan, and several figures from the Spanish American War.

Juan also meets Sacagawea, who proclaims when she sees her likeness on a dollar coin, “I look fat”. He also meets Viola Pettus (Kimberly Scott) an African-American Woman who even nursed the Ku Klux Klan during the terrible flu outbreak of 1918.

Along the way he encounters Ralf Lazo (Daisuke Tsuji), a teenager of Irish and Mexican decent who insisted on going to the infamous Manzanar Camp in 1942 where his Asian-American classmates are interned.

If there is someone who has been exploited and then forgotten in history, this often silly piece remembers him or her fondly but satirically.

American Night is a comedy with some profound ideas underneath. It is American imperfections that ultimately propel Juan towards his new life. It is better to join Americans than to remain outside, an alien.

The play asks all of us who were once foreigners to take a deeper look into what exactly are Americans’ strengths and weaknesses.

American Night will play at the Kirk Douglas until April 1.

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