“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 — and this is a contemporary play — 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.