Transplanted from West Coast, ‘American Night’ adapts

Richard Montoya’s “American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose” explores American history through the eyes of a Mexican immigrant.
Richard Montoya’s “American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose” explores American history through the eyes of a Mexican immigrant. Photo by Yale Repertory Theater.

It’s almost like an announcement audiences have heard dozens of times before: silence all cell phones, refrain from texting during the performance — and, in case of an emergency, “Anglo patrons should exit the building first.”

So begins Richard Montoya’s “American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose,” the story of one Mexican immigrant’s dream-voyage through U.S. history on the night before his citizenship test. Since its first performance in 2010 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, “American Night” has travelled to cities across the western United States, finally making its East Coast debut on Sept. 21 as the first play in the Yale Repertory Theatre’s 2012-2013 season. But to adapt to its new context, the play has faced a new range of challenges and possibilities, said Montoya, who revised the work in conjunction with the production’s East Coast cast and Director Shana Cooper.

In its movement to the East Coast, Montoya, Cooper and the cast “fine-tuned” the humor in “American Night,” intending to make it more accessible to its new audience, Lauren Dubowski DRA ’14 explained.

“A Northern California or La Jolla joke doesn’t work [on the East Coast],” Montoya said.

Dubowski added that the Yale Rep’s production of “American Night” features one new character, a young Muslim woman, and a revised script that caters more closely to regional jokes and prejudices. These changes explain the threat at the end of the show’s opening announcements to deport all cellphone users to East Haven, she said.

Montoya also described a change — perhaps unintentional — in the tone of the East Coast performances, which he said stems from the different experiences of East Coast audiences with race and immigration issues and the way the cast interacts with such an audience.

Audiences at the Yale Rep, he explained, are accustomed to a certain kind of “politeness” in discussions of immigration issues. These audiences relate to the play’s aggressive humor differently than audiences in western states, where the social and political problems of immigration are a central part of public discourse, he added.

“It can be a harder issue to tackle because you have this austere feeling of a New England audience,” Montoya said. “It may not have permeated our Little Leagues and our PTAs the way it has in Southern California, but it’s there in the gardens [and] in the people who are cleaning your pool.”

The complexities of this interaction are manifest in the relationship between “American Night” and the Yale Rep itself — a daring, political play about marginalization juxtaposed with an institution that represents privilege, Dubowski said.

“The Yale Rep is a gutsy place to raise these issues — to put Emmett Till on a stage with a Klan dude,” Dubowski said. “It’s a bold statement to make with the opening play of a season, and I have a lot of respect for the decisions that brought this play to the Rep.”

James Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Rep, said that the issues raised by these regional differences are secondary in importance to the central themes of “American Night” and the humanizing mission of the play that resonates with audiences of all regions and backgrounds.

He added that while audiences in Western states may have more familiarity with the topic of immigration, most audience members here still identify with the core narrative of immigrants’ stories and understand enough of the context surrounding the issue to appreciate the work.

“One of the advantages of satire is that the artists can continue to improvise, connecting to audiences freshly in each performance,” Bundy said.

The play has prompted a range of audience reactions, actor Austin Durant DRA ’10 said, though he believes that the play “is not a left-leaning liberal tirade” but an honest treatment of immigration’s effect on Americans of all classes and colors. He said he has seen some audience members walk out mid-performance; Dubowski reported seeing other spectators gasp at moments in the play that recall horrific events from their childhoods. Montoya too has been asked in post-show discussions why Armenians, Jamaicans and Jewish people are exempt from the play’s biting satire.

“American Night” will play at the Rep until Oct. 13.

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