Immigrants and those who support them often talk about the richness and vitality that newcomers bring to this country, from the original settlers to the slaves dragged here in chains to the lonely and much-reviled Chinese men who built the railroads (Chinese women being legally excluded at the time). They mention the Germans and Dutch, the Italians (who mercifully popularized garlic) and the Irish, Jews from Eastern Europe, and — of course — the migrants from countries south of the border, particularly Mexico. Immigrants contribute new foods, family patterns, skills, languages, arts and literature, but most of all they contribute a refreshing sideways perspective on what it means to be American. And for this, they have been persecuted in many quarters. American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose, written by Richard Montoya of the San Francisco performance troupe Culture Clash, tells the immigrant story through a crazed mix of skits, historical references, inspired parody and moments of pathos and insight. But the play isn't just an animated history lesson; it's a jolt, a tear in the fabric, in itself an embodiment of the immigrant effect.
As the play opens, Juan Jose is studying for his citizenship test, having been obliged to leave his wife and infant son in Mexico. Dazed from a lack of sleep, he's also trying to sort through the help he's receiving from several odd quarters — particularly from a pair of Mormons who want him eventually to help spread the word about their wacky and peculiarly American religion to his dark-skinned brethren. Juan turns back to his studies, and historical events begin unfolding in a phantasmagoric tapestry. He witnesses the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, under which huge swaths of Mexico's land were lost to the United States. He runs into all kinds of historical figures: Lewis and Clark, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. "This land is your land, this land is my land," sings Woody Guthrie.
We see the evil and stupidity of racism, but it's depicted with irrepressible high spirits — even though playwright Montoya is well aware of what's at stake — along with a plethora of appalling puns and anachronisms. There's an off-stage clatter, and you're told someone has just kicked the bucket. A lumbering black beast gives new life to the world's most famous stage direction: "Exit pursued by a bear." Juan Jose gives Sacagawea, the Native American woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark, a bright-green pair of Nikes and advises her to "just do it."
American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through November 20, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
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Acts of conscience and simple human decency are celebrated. Juan Jose tells Viola Pettus, a black nurse from Texas who cared for the victims of the 1918 Spanish flu whether they were African-American or members of the Klan, "I will write you into the history books." As a teenager, Ralph Lazo was so horrified by the World War II roundup of his Japanese-American friends that he deliberately joined them in Manzanar.
Among the more chilling moments: Juan Jose tossing on a raft in the ocean — a reminder of the thousands of refugees lost at sea every year all over the world, including Cubans attempting to reach America. And then there's the cheerful youngster who pops on stage to introduce himself as Emmett Till.
You may not catch every reference, but it doesn't really matter, because the show unfurls with such joyous, driving energy, and the acting is so crazy good: David DeSantos as a vulnerable yet irrepressible Juan Jose; Sam Gregory, playing everything from a Ku Klux Klan member to legendary Australian labor organizer Harry Bridges; Ruy Iskandar morphing from a repressed Mormon to a Japanese game-show host to a cocky Asian IT expert who loses his job to a rival in India. But I could just as easily single out Dena Martinez, Rodney Lizcano, Richard Azurdia, Kacy-Earl David, Libby West and Daphne Gaines, because every one of them is terrific.