No way ‘Juan Jose!’

“Racist” is the wrong word for “American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose.” If English had a word for “not-racist,” that would also be the wrong word. If English had a word for “not-not-racist” that might be the right word. But English, language of brutish Anglo-Oppressors, is not self-aware enough to have a word for “not-not-racist.” And so it takes a play like “American Night” to illustrate exactly what the term means. This is a play that is so self-congratulatory about being anti-racist that it accidentally manages a new and puzzling form of meta-racism.

The play attempts to be a satirical romp through the parts of American history that you didn’t learn about in school — the oppressive and hypocritical parts — seen through the eyes of Juan Jose, a Mexican immigrant studying for his citizenship exam. But this conceit is ineffective because a contemporary Yale Rep audience &#8212 and this is a contemporary play &#8212 has in fact learned these parts of American History at great length.

The play clearly panders to an educated liberal audience that already identifies itself as not-racist: there are countless Mitt Romney jokes, and Mormons are presented as intrinsically funny. So if the play is to be a successful satire of racism, it should subvert our educated liberal complacency and expose us as actually subtlety racist in some sort of revealing and funny way. Unfortunately, the form of racism “American Night” takes on is not-not-not subtle. The play is filled with obsolete racist archetypes. Most notable is a Japanese game-show host who brings on sumo wrestlers and instructs losing contestants to perform seppuku. The host and a couple other characters are played in unabashed stereotypes — by white and Asian actors alike — complete with bows and the phonetic switching of “L”s and “R”s. On a surface level, this is supposed to expose to the audience how ridiculous and untrue common portrayals of minorities can be. But in effect, the play offers us a chance to earnestly laugh at stereotypes, while assuring us that we’re not actually racist because were watching and presumably enjoying a hyper-liberal pro-immigration-rights play that has a Mexican protagonist, refers to America as “stolen Indian land,” and features a female Muslim student proclaiming “give me your young, give me your weak!” This play is a guilty pleasure without the guilt or the pleasure.

To a critical audience with a sense of humor (me), the play is entertaining because it works as an unintentional satire of satire. The caricatures are as over the top as the message is confused and heavy-handed. And where the play doesn’t derive humor from not-not-racism, it derives humor from references that were already worn out in 2001. Apparently anachronistic references to the mere existence of Google and texting count as topical humor. The actors, however, did the best they could with what the script demanded, and the set-design was very well thought-out and dynamic. Ouch.

Shon Arieh-Lerer is a dramaturgy student and a junior in Ezra Stiles College.

Correction: Oct. 3

A previous version of this article contained language deemed inappropriate by the News. This language was removed during the editing process. Due to a computer error, however, the online version of the article did not include this change. The News sincerely regrets this error.

Comments

  • jem16

    “chink face”? i’m pretty surprised this got through… I believe the term is yellowface when referring to the media portrayal of Asians through these stereotypical lenses.

    • salerer

      This was worse than “yellowface.” It was “chink face.”

  • GlobalArts

    It sounds like Shon didn’t get it. Richard Montoya is legend –a playwright with a unique voice. Check out his work or at least read other reviews of people who do in fact get it. The NY Times review was much better, more accurate in my opinion: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/07/nyregion/a-review-of-american-night-the-ballad-of-juan-jose-in-new-haven.html?_r=0

    • amenhotep

      The NY Times review is extremely vapid.

      It says, “One of the most admirable aspects of Mr. Montoya’s work is that the humor serves the playwright’s point of view so well and yet can play happily with throwaway references to Walmart, the Olive Garden, cupcake wars and one character’s comment, when Bob Dylan and Joan Baez look-alikes perform old protest songs, that ‘the Occupy Wall Street movement could have used these two.’”

      That quote at the end is not a joke or literature. It is a sentence that a dad says.

    • joematcha

      I found the show to be completely devoid of any original ideas, either in production or in writing. It relied completely on outdated racial jokes so as to be edgy, but had nothing to actually say with those jokes, which were also rarely funny and relied on the cast to mug to elicit laughter.

  • Zimmy

    This is a hate crime against dramaturgy. Since the author is a student of dramaturgy, I hope that he will consider studying how to write serious criticism. Criticism does not entail drawing attention to one’s snarky wit. It involves a rigorous consideration of a work that advances our understanding of what it does or attempts to do. The final paragraph, in particular, with its first and final sentences are atrocious and irresponsible excuses for criticism.

    • amenhotep

      This comment is a hate crime against hate crimes. Since the author is a student of hate crimes, I hope that he will consider studying how to write serious hate crimes. Hate crimes do not entail drawing attention to one’s snarky wit. They involve a rigorous consideration of the hate crime that advances our understanding of what it does or attempts to do. The final paragraph, in particular, with its first and last sentences are atrocious and irresponsible excuses for a hate crime.

    • GlobalArts

      Shon is not a theater major at Yale. There are no “dramaturgy” majors at Yale. I think his reference to “dramaturgy student” was tongue in cheek. Perhaps one day YDN will actually use Yale’s theater majors to write the reviews. As they say everyone’s a critic….

  • Nathan_Hale_II

    Chalk this one up as yet another stinker from the Yale Rep. So many resources and a built-in audience…and *this* is what they give us?