Sometimes, one goes to the theatre with no previous knowledge of the material they are about to see, and it turns into one of the best performances they’ve ever seen. For me, it was seeing American Night: The Ballad of Juan José at LA Theatre Works. The show tells the story of Juan José, who left his family behind in Mexico to immigrate to America. He has been studying for his citizenship test, and it’s the night before the big day. One second, you’re in the room with Juan José and his interviewers, and the next you’re in a dreamscape that is filled with various pop culture references that shouldn’t necessarily work, but do spectacularly, be it lines about texting, Wal*Mart, Olive Garden, and even the musical The Book of Mormon. Some of the dream sequences referenced the Civil Rights movement, Japanese-American internment camps, and even Lewis and Clarke. And that’s not even close to recounting all the other sequences, which were also a lot of fun.
One of my favorite things about the show was that the writer, Richard Montoya, was part of the cast. I noticed throughout the show that he was busy writing on his script when he wasn’t performing, and then, when he was at a mic, he was making everyone in the room laugh. The best thing about the laughter was watching the shaking shoulders of the rest of the cast. They knew they couldn’t laugh out loud, due to the performance being recorded, and they made the best of it while still being able to react. If I were in their position, I don’t think I’d have been able to be so controlled. I also really appreciated the way that history was incorporated into the dream sequences in the show. It took me back to my high school history/civics classes while showing some events in a much more entertaining light that would have kept me enthralled while in those classes. (Isn’t it amazing how good entertainment can make topics that have previously seemed boring so much more interesting?)
The most powerful aspect of American Night: The Ballad of Juan José was the humanity it portrayed. Too often, when immigration is covered in the news, it takes on an “us versus them” attitude that isn’t good for civil conversation. The play allows the audience to see Juan José as a desperate man who just wants the opportunity to care for his family and protect them from an environment rife with corruption and danger. Seeing a human face, even one that is a character in a play, gives way to open new discussions about the importance of immigration.
With that said, the show wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without the cast. Had a less talented group performed the play, I don’t know that it would have worked as well as it did. As most of the cast played several roles, it’s hard to call out any of them over the others for their performances. Everyone clearly had fun while they brought their characters to life, and the show felt like a modern day Monty Python show.
When this show is available for purchase, I will be the first in line to buy it. I haven’t laughed as hard as I did while seeing American Night: The Ballad of Juan José in a long time. It is currently my second favorite of the LA Theatre Works productions that I’ve seen live, but it is by far the funniest.