by Cristina Shannon
This November, the San José State University Department of Film & Theatre performed American Night: The Ballad of Juan José for their fall production. This satirical fantasy follows the main character, Juan José, as he feverishly studies for his citizenship exam. He falls asleep and dreams of several wild moments in history and meets a few very poignant members of society along the way. The play was originally written by Richard Montoya in 2010, but director Sean San José added a few timely references to modern injustices that many immigrants are facing today.
The play was introduced by Elisha Miranda, Chair of the Department of Film and Theatre for SJSU, who touched on some of the important themes that would be presented in the play. She emphasized that it was a satirical performance meant to address the real political implications of immigration and the treatment of Mexicans in the United States. She describes Juan José as a character “like everyone else, with dreams, and hopes, and emotions as he works hard for a better life.” She continues, saying “My hope is that we stop seeing each other as alien to this country and begin to view one another with the understanding that someone like Juan José is a person, a father, a partner, a human being.”
Lead character Juan José (played by Savannah Garcia, Francheska Loy, and Caroline Basha) encounters several historical scenes that the play brings magically to life. Throughout his night of dreaming, Juan meets historical figures and pop culture icons like Sacagawea, Lewis & Clark, Teddy Roosevelt, Bob Dylan—and even an Elvis impersonator. The play mixes satire with biting social commentary that both entertains and carries serious political messages.
American Night takes the conventional wisdom about racism, immigration, and the political state of America and turns it on its head. It pokes fun at those who believe that building a wall to keep people out is more important than compassion and builds a case for a more inclusive future that accepts immigrants not as invaders but as fellow humans seeking a better life for themselves and their families. “It is essential to ask ourselves: how do we resist the dangerous narratives of immigrants that have been presented to us, and instead see and uplift the humanity and rights of individuals,” Miranda says.
Originally written to be performed during the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010, author Richard Montoya had words of advice for the cast of the Hammer Theatre production. “[P]lay hard, play for keeps,” he writes. “Don’t get lost in the romp and fun, that will happen no matter; this beast is built for talented young actors and skilled directors with corazón. Which is what you have in SJSU. Lucky you.” Though American Night was written at the beginning of the decade, the topics it explores may be even more relevant today. Montoya continues, “I know you will do my play proper and as you play, consider the very real terror struck in the heart of detained and separated children at our nation’s borders.”
Though the play works on the themes of division that have polarized the debates around immigration, Elisha Miranda notes that there is also a sense of unification in experiencing these dramatized conflicts in a room full of other people. “Theatre reminds us to leave our solitary experience from the solitary existence that represents one of the few areas in our society where people can come together to share the experience,” Miranda says, “even if they see the world in radically different ways. We need more multi-dimensional, complex stories like American Night.”
To learn more about upcoming shows at SJSU, including the spring musical Urinetown, visit sjsu.edu/filmandtheatre/production-season