|American Night The Ballad of Juan Jose at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City|
By Joe Straw
Kirk Douglas Theater, Friday evening during closing weekend, is jumping. Salsa music is pulsating through the lobby. The audience is more diverse than usual with many Latinos including a crowd of young college students. It’s lively and fun. This is what theater in Los Angeles should look, sound, and feel like!
Standing in the lobby of the Kirk Douglas Theatre, I was approached by an attractive white attendant who wanted me to take a citizenship test. I’m a “little dark” and I supposed I could look like an undocumented person. She explained the test. Nodding my head I said “No comprendo. ¿Habla español?” And she replied “No, sorry I don’t do that.” I told her I was kidding.
Tests have always given me the willies but I chose the hard citizenship test, after all I believe that, in my heart, after all these years, I’m a little wiser. And being born in another country, there are times when people treat me as an undocumented person. So this test was a challenge of sorts. And I chose the hard one, given on a iPad no less. The grade was somewhat vague. I got 100% and a raffle ticket.
The Center Theatre Group and La Jolla Playhouse present American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose by Richard Montoya and directed by Jo Bonney. This is a wonderful production, with wonderful performances by a wonderful cast. It is a mad cap, zany, stooge-like historical lesson that at times hits home to those dark places that yearns to break free.
Briefly, the story is about Juan Jose (Rene Millan) who sings his way to El Norte (the north). His wife, Lydia (Stephanie Beatriz), is pregnant and he is away earning money to send back home and eventually have her join him.
He studies to become an American Citizen and is helped by two Mormons (David Kelly and Daisuke Tsuji) to follow that dream. But realizing the dream seems to be an impossible task. He has only flash cards to study and he has this mental block on the United States three branches of government. And not knowing that always hurts.
Studying hard, he falls asleep and travels back in time to relive significant, irreverent, madcap and sometimes-distorted moments of history. After all it is a dream.
I cannot give justice to narrating the story in this play. All I can say is that it is a visual feast and it is ending soon. So grab a seat while there’s time and witness the creativity that is Richard Montoya.
I also would like to talk about the acting in this production because it is very creative and although there are only nine people listed in the cast, it seems like there are thirty. Costume changing must be fast and furious backstage.
Rene Millan as Juan Jose is terrific actor who is on stage most of the night and he never lets up. His character is a constant force striving for freedom, justice and citizenship. His attack of the bunny is hilarious. His dreams are the dreams of man that only wants one thing, but all these other silly things keep intruding on his vision. This is a wonderful performance by an astonishing focused actor.
Stephanie Beatriz as Lydia is a wonderful performer with a distinctive singing voice. Her style is subtle and poignant. Her 15 year-old Sacagawowwow, with braces, adds another dimension to this famous legend. Her Lydia is a woman of truth and compassion. This is a terrific performance one wants to embrace.
Rodney Gardiner as Ben Pettus and as Jackie Robinson was extremely funny and created brilliant relationships with all of his counterparts on stage. He was hilarious as a Chinese black man. In fact all of his character were simply marvelous in this production.
David Kelly plays Harry Bridges and was excellent. He plays a number of other roles—one being the Judge who is also a member of the Klu Klux Klan that takes his deathly ill baby to a loving African American woman to be saved. He was delightful in a number of ways and a trouper.
Terri McMahon was enchanting as Mrs. Finney and in other roles. She is very sympathetic character who tries not to be characterized as a minority hating white person.
Kimberly Scott as Viola Pettus was charming. She has the kind of presence one would love to have on set. She is very comfortable on stage and a joy to watch.
Daisuke Tsuji was fabulous as Johnny and other characters. Each character was magnificently created and suited for each moment. They were so different and so delightful. From the Mormon with an odd sense of humor, to the IT guy, to Johnny and the game show host that there is a sense of grandness to his style of creation and I hope to see more of his work in the future.
Herbert Siguenza is always delightful to see from a Native American woman pushing an electric mower, to the sumo wrestler, to Teddy Roosevelt, to ach, there’s too many to name. He is always outstanding and a very committed actor to his craft.
Richard Montoya as Juan Jose from the past wears a Jaxon Deadman top hat similar to the costume he wore in Palestine, NM (see review here). It is a very interesting look and one that stands out no matter where he is on stage. His performance as Bob Dylan is delightful as well as the many characters he plays. As the writer, well I’m not sure what goes on up there, but his work is surprisingly amusing and will catch you completely off guard if you’re not paying special attention. One needs to be caught up on current events to get the jokes at times but that is not hard given what being spouted from news outlets today. And if you swing to the left, so much the better.
Jo Bonney, the director, does an amazing job of keeping the action going. The Kirk Douglas Theatre is the perfect venue for this type of production and she keeps the engagements going with a grand sense of style and panache. Her characters move in and out behind flats that startle and surprise. And images roll on corrugated screens that take us like trains to El Norte. All of the characters have a grand sense of complexity and humor and each takes a turn at being heroes in their own right. Bonney takes this marvelous group of actors and gives each of them poignant moments that are both indescribable and heartbreaking.
Run before time runs out. Run to see this production.
I have not been to the Kirk Douglas Theatre since Come Back Little Sheba. It seems different and much improved with a wonderful supporting staff. I will be coming back.