Hidden History: The Ballad of Juan José

“If America wants to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans — who do you think will build it?”

Daisuke Tsuji and René Millán rewrite history in La Jolla Playhouse’s American Night, The Ballad of Juan José.
  • Daisuke Tsuji and René Millán rewrite history in La Jolla Playhouse’s American Night, The Ballad of Juan José.

Dreams don’t care about time or space. They freely remix the known and unimaginable. In Culture Clash’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, a kaleidoscopic dream guides the title character on an official tour of American history. Along the way, he discovers some of the “hidden history” the dominant culture has tucked away and bonds with unexpected allies.

A cop in Sinaloa, Mexico, Juan José refuses a bribe from a drug cartel. He must leave his wife and young son and trek to the U.S. To bring his family north, he must become a citizen. So, he crams for the test: “What is the supreme law of the land?”; “What are the two rights of everyone living in the United States?” On the eve of the exam, he drifts off into a “spirit dream.”

American Night is part irreverent slapstick, part nightmare, often both at once. Juan José goes back to 1848 and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico ceded Upper California and New Mexico to the U.S. and, says one character, “made every Latino an illegal alien.”

Juan José meets 15-year-old Sacagawea, who aided Lewis and Clark, and goes to Manzanar, one of the Japanese internment camps in World War II. But the dream goofs things up: “Saca-chihuaua” wears braces and thick glasses, and he watches a jazzy radio broadcast at Manzanar.

Juan José discovers that his official history book is incomplete. He meets Viola Pettus, an African-American who courageously nursed all of Brewster County, Texas, during the 1918 flu pandemic — even the Ku Klux Klan. Juan José writes her into his book, literally.

If history were taught with Clash’s humor, it would become the most popular major on every campus. The title recalls Jim Morrison’s collected writings, The American Night. And, like them, it soars, spins, and sprockets with the logical illogic of a dream.

At the La Jolla Playhouse, the stage is bare. Then, Shawn Sagady’s projections take over. The rear wall becomes a mobile panorama of the Sonoran Desert and, later, a passing train full of Industrial Workers of the World — the Wobblies — singing songs of protest. Erase the videos, and the cinderblock and corrugated metal wall becomes the U.S./Mexico border. It underscores one of the play’s most pointed lines: “If America wants to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans — who do you think will build it?”

Performances, directed with split-second timing by Jo Bonney, match the fluidity of the videos. Nine actors play at least six characters each (backstage changes must be a frenzy, as Esosa’s color-wheel-like costumes fly about). Clash’s Richard Montoya, who wrote the script, plays everyone from Juan José’s grandfather, a Mexican revolutionary, to Bob Dylan at Woodstock (a historical fact the script gets wrong: Dylan, Montoya admits, wasn’t at the concert). The Clash’s Herbert Siguenza scores with everyone from a gun-crazy Teddy Roosevelt, who splotches the wall with trophies, to Neil Diamante singing a funny, revisionist version of “Coming to America.

The ensemble work is so precise, so wired, it’s easy to sympathize with the show’s understudy. Imagine: step in, play various historical figures at breakneck speed, sing, and be both a cartoon character and deadly serious at the same time. And do it all, as this cast does, seemingly without effort.

The story is a corrida, a folk tale passed on by word-of-mouth, often for generations. Juan José becomes both a specific person and a legend “without end.” Rene Millan excels as the man who sheds a stereotype before your eyes. Like Dorothy skipping through Oz, or Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea, Juan José finds his way through thickets of madness to an unforeseen sanity. In the end, he knows more about U.S. citizenship and American history than most of the audience.

A woman and two men. One hotel room, fairly plush. Outside a war zone, the battle coming closer, but nothing like the one inside.

Ion Theatre, noted for risk-taking, warns potential audiences that Sarah Kane’s 90-minute dehumanization derby is not for the faint — maybe even the hard — of heart. The play is part of Ion’s “Off-the Radar” series and is just that.

Kane, who committed suicide in 1999, wrote the play when she was 23. You have to go back to the young Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus for such a catalogue of depravity on stage. Almost a checklist, in fact: ripe language, nudity, two rapes, extremes of violence on- and off-stage.

The slow first half recalls Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, but infected with evil; the second half reaches a place I’ve never seen in a theater: a bomb-crater, blasted of humanity.

Ron Choularton does spot-on, riveting work as Ian. A chain-smoking, gin-gulping journalist (already half-dead and committing suicide in slow-motion), Ian’s paid to write about inhumane acts. Choularton’s jagged intensity never lets up. A camouflaged Steve Lone is effectively blunt and brutal as, Kane suggests, every-soldier. On opening night, Gemma Grey’s Cate beamed off and on. She reached some of the play’s emotional crudity, but her laugh was stagy, and her rigid, floppy epileptic fits never rang true.

Given Kane’s harrowing vision, the ending — “out of the mud grows the lotus” — felt gratuitous (also, some of the violence; Kane force-feeds effects). But the play’s final impression has a rare, genuinely disturbing feel. The title accurately predicts how you will leave the theater. ■

American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, by Richard Montoya, developed by Culture Clash and Jo Bonney

La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD

Directed by Jo Bonney; cast: Stephanie Beatriz, Rodney Gardiner, David Kelly, Terri McMahon, René Millán, Richard Montoya, Kimberly Scott, Herbert Siguenza, Daisuke Tsuji; scenic design, Neil Patel; costumes, Esosa; lighting, David Weiner; sound, Darron L. West; projections, Shawn Sagady; choreographer, Ken Roht

Playing through February 26; Sunday and Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010

Blasted, by Sarah Kane

Ion Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest

Directed by Claudio Raygoza; cast: Ron Choularton, Gemma Gray, Steve Lone; scenic design, Raygoza; costumes, Danita Lee; lighting, Karin Filijan; sound, Melanie Chen

Playing through February 18; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. 619-600-5020

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Two wonderful theatre groups in one fabulous column! San Diego is a lucky city!

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