American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose. Written by Richard Montoya, of the San Francisco performance group Culture Clash, American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose tells the story of immigrants in America through a crazed mix of skits, historical references, inspired parody and moments of pathos and insight.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 richness and vitality 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 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. Acts of conscience and simple human decency are celebrated, too. "I will write you into the history books," 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, 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. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through November 20, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed October 20.
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