American Night: The Ballad of Juan José
La Jolla Playhouse
The innovation continues at the La Jolla Playhouse. The venue enjoys a legacy of compelling productions that push the edge of the envelope, while providing thoughtful entertainment. The latest offering brings in the provocative Culture Clash troupe, exploring the timely issue of immigration.
Our lead character struggles with the pros and cons of leaving Mexico to seek citizenship across the border. The obvious benefits are balanced against the traditional tug of the homeland. But on the eve of his citizenship exam, Juan José falls into a dream. His efforts of cramming for the exam run him headlong, and sideways, into the myths and received wisdom of American history. He starts with a visit to the critical 1848 signing of the treaty that gave nearly half of Mexico’s land to the US, effectively pushing the border far south. From the painful realities of the KKK to the internment of Japanese-Americans, he also bumps humorously into the Lewis and Clark expedition, as well as Bob Dylan at Woodstock. No matter that Dylan did not perform at the festival, by the time Juan José encounters the singer, the audience is ready for almost any absurdity.
Led by writer Richard Montoya (who also plays the lead character’s father, among others), the cast is a versatile gang of performers, clearly able to improvise. René Millàn in the titular role manages to evoke bewilderment and determination in equal measure. Director Jo Bonney keeps the one act play on the rails, with the rest of the ensemble making quick costume changes as needed.
Despite the laughter, of which there is plenty, there are many poignant moments and pointed questions raised. Joe Arpaio, the brazen Arizona sheriff known for his anti-immigration status, comes across as smug, despite his own parents being immigrants. The struggle to move across the border is fairly timeless, and this production has been customized for its proximity to the border. Juan José eventually confronts the citizenship exam, which silently asks the audience if they could pass the test.
An evening of laughter and introspection such as this is rewarding.