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American Night

Forget about what you were taught in civics or U.S. history classes. To the victors go the spoils, or as Will Rogers said, "I doubt if there is a thing in the world as wrong or unreliable as history. History ain't what it is. It's what some writer wanted it to be."

David DeSantos as Juan Jose
David DeSantos as Juan José
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Leave it to Richard Montoya, of Culture Clash, to present U.S. history as viewed from south of the border, packed with irreverent satire for 100 up-tempo minutes. For those stuck on a scrubbed and sanitized version of events that run from the arrival of Europeans in North America to the present, there's bound to be some uncomfortable moments, as Manifest Destiny, racism, Social Darwinism, and Christian self-righteousness get mixed together into an imperialist zealotry that seizes Northern Mexico at the point of a gun. But it's all in good fun, which makes it go down easier.

To the accompaniment of a soulful trio (two guitars and a tuba), Juan José (David DeSantos) walks north, through the Sonora Desert, to reach the U.S., where he hopes to become a citizen and provide for his wife and child-to-be who wait back home. The wee hours of the night before his citizenship test, his head spinning with details from his textbook, Juan José drifts into a dream-state, while his subconscious tries to make sense of what he's learned.

(Left to right) Rodney Lizcano, Kacy-Earl David and Sam Gregory
(L to R) Rodney Lizcano,
Kacy-Earl David and Sam Gregory
Photo: Terry Shapiro
After a go around with a couple of Mormons who offer to help him study, we jump to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo, by which Mexico ceded 55% of its prewar territory, including included all of present-day California, Nevada and Utah, plus most of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, as well as all claims to Texas, and recognized the Rio Grande as the southern boundary of the United States.

Dena Martinez as Sacagawea
Dena Martinez as Sacagawea
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Not that these borders were ever a barrier to further expansion, as we see in a fun sequence that morphs together border agents, the Book of Mormon, a Nike factory in Tijuana, Lewis and Clark, and a 16-year old Sacagawea, who wears a retainer as she raps with Juan José. In addition to Sacagawea, DeSantos plays straight man to dozens of zany historical characters, including Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, General George Armstrong Custer, President James Polk, Jackie Robinson, and Teddy Roosevelt.

Although a bit sophomoric at times—think Monty Python meets The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)—the ensemble is terrific. We empathize with DeSantos in his quest to provide a better life for his family, although we are left wondering if he didn't trade the devil he knows for the devil he doesn't.

As the Occupy movement attempts to avoid co-optation, from the financial interests that control the political and economic process in this country and around the world, and points toward a convention on July 4, 2012 in Philadelphia, we hope that more folks will follow Montoya's humourous example, pull back the curtain, and begin to question what they have been taught about how things work.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of American Night: The Ballad of Juan José runs through November 20th. 303-893-4100 or www.denvercenter.org.

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