A Great Day at an American Night
by Joe Lambert
Richard appears, as does his long time Culture Clash collaborator Herbert Siquenza, and a cast of eight other talented actors that morph into countless roles. Lots of laughs, and for me at least, sitting with my daughter in the "understudy" booth up in the rafters of the black box theater (with my son sitting in the one ticket we could get below), not a small number of tears.
I cry easily at stories that touch the thread of redemption in the face of the tragedies of race in America. The play has all the broad strokes of satire, but more importantly it has the integrity of continuity -- the unending struggle against racism in America, as poignant today as ever, in the face of the Mosque, Obama-birther, Arizona, as ever.
A continuity that reminded me of the story of the illustrated book 450 Years of Chicano History that was published in Albuquerque in 1976. When I landed in the San Francisco left in 1976, this book had just hit the shelf at Modern Times bookstore on Valencia, and I bought a copy, along with "Detroit I Do My Dying", and Frederick Engels "Wages, Price and Profit". I remember feeling like the secret history of America was being presented to me. And I had that sense that American Night was going to have a similar role in giving a history lesson to the predominately highly educated, highly cultured crowds that are likely to see this show. They know all the characters, the names of events, but the total impression is of how much the idea of fearing the racial other is not an ancillary part of American history, it is the story. This is how the play's impact lingers.
My favorite moment is an odd one. In the protagonist Juan Jose's dream, there comes out of the end of the Manzanar section d the ghost of Jackie Robinson, Jackie plays catch with Juan, but an actress appears as a young African American kid, and he is offered the ball as a trophy. As he leaves, they ask his name. "Emmett Till" he says. "From Chicago". I don't remember the exit line by Robinson, but more or less, "Be careful out there." For some reason I pretty much cracked at this interchange, the symbol of integration meets the symbol of racist murder, Till, the 14 year old killed in Money, Mississippi.
Moments like these happen throughout the play and joined with the beautiful projection design by Shawn Sagady, the New Deal train sequence was flat out amazing, and through them, the deeper thread of Richard's vision for the piece is sustained.
I am drawn to Richard Wright's haiku.
American Night is a cool play, addressing a multiethnic, immigrant nation forged in the fire of conquest, and still burning red hot with the rage of injustice. Cool plays like this help to reduce the heat a bit, as much as a summer moon perhaps, and let us ponder how we continue on our journey beyond borders.
Joe Lambert is executive director of the Center for Digital Storytelling.
|Published in In Motion Magazine October 9, 2010
American Night: The Ballad of Juan José by Richard Montoya and Culture Clash plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival June 29-October 31, 2010, at the New Theatre. Directed by Joe Bonney.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival -- Founded in 1935, the Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival is among the oldest and largest professional non-profit theatres in the nation.
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