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Writer and Actor Richard Montoya on his Play 'American Night' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

'American Night: The Ballad of Juan José' is currently being performed by the Chicano group Culture Clash at Culver City's Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Culver City Patch caught up with Richard Montoya, whose play American Night tells the story of Juan José, a man who has to pass the U.S. Citizenship Exam. He will need help to do so and it will come in the form of Bob Dylan, Sacagawea, Jackie Robinson and Teddy Roosevelt.

Culver City Patch: How long has Culture Clash been entertaining audiences through theater?

Richard Montoya: Since 1984. It's been a mix of politicizing, entertaining and provoking. Hopefully we are making audiences laugh and think. Back then there were not many Latino comics. And we came out of a very serious theater movement. In the late 70’s there were close to some 70 plus Chicano theater companies in the southwest alone. Culture Clash came along at the tail end of that movement, with our focus on urban and sketch comedy.

Aside from Freddie Prinze and Paul Rodriguez, there weren’t many Latino comedians out there. So we [were] categorized as political theater artists along with El Teatro Campesino and Luis Valdez. We wanted to specialize in satire and political humor for what we thought would be a primarily Latino audience. To our surprise we wound up connecting to a predominately Anglo audience, or an NPR type of audience who thought along the same lines that we did.

Patch: Was there a defining point in your life when you decided that you would specialize in would involve race and politics?

Montoya: Yes. You know we’re old enough to have been influenced by guys like Richard Pryor. I remember when George Carlin came to one of our shows and left a note saying “keep kicking ‘em in the you know what.” We were eventually able to work with Cheech Marin, so these were our early heroes, people who helped to influence us...These guys were like comedy gods.

But at the same time we would go back and read up on guys like Aristophanes, and other Greek comics. They were extremely bold and towards the end of their civilization, were able to incorporate the use of comedy in poking fun at the establishment and well-entrenched men like Plato. They were very satirical and raunchy. And as a troop we were all able to connect to and relate to all of that.

With regards to our multicultural appeal, the focus on American Night was to enable it to incorporate and define where various cultures intersect. It’s about an African-American nurse in west Texas in 1918 healing Mexican revolutionaries and children of Klansman... through the eyes of a Mexican immigrant.This is the stuff of real importance to me, where the cultures can intersect…even if it means we are force feeding the viewing audience.  

I can see the Anglo members of our audience enjoying the references that they can understand and I can see the African-American church ladies in their Sunday hats coming to the show and also enjoying seeing themselves in the play. Lastly, the Latinos come because they know that their boys in Culture Clash are going to deliver the goods but it is just amazing to have eight or nine members in the cast that is reflective of the diversity that makes up Los Angeles. We stepped away from issues such as how Latino am I? How Hispanic am I? How Chicano am I? If we haven’t figured that out by now...I mean I don’t have any more plays in me dealing with those topics… we have exhausted them all.

Patch: What can you tell us about the role of Juan Jose in American Night?

Montoya: He's a Mexican immigrant who has come here legally, but whose time is about to expire and so he is in a rush to take his citizenship exam. And so in his fervor to become a legal citizen, the night before his big exam he has a dream. That dream puts him front and center into everything that he has been studying. He signs treaties, crosses rivers, meets Lewis and Clark, Teddy Roosevelt and others. And they all have something to say to him about immigrants and immigrations.

Lewis and Clark crossed many borders with Sacagawea, their guide. Teddy Roosevelt is quoted as saying “Shame on him who does not extend a hand to help a brother.”

We are just trying to remind audiences that we are all just a couple of degrees away from being an immigrant.

With American Night I'm trying to humanize probably the most vilified character in recent American history thanks to the tea party and recent newspaper headlines. And that would be the modern day Mexican immigrant who is now seen as being one level below the Taliban in terms of vilification. That concerns me...being that I am a Mexican-American. Although I have no family in Mexico, I am an 8th generation American. Both my parents and grandparents were born on this side of the border. But when I travel through Arizona on tour, or even alone with my wife and son, you begin to get the feeling that not all is right…that you are a potential target.

You know that what is in place in Arizona can only be referred to as the new Jim Crow laws. And you can’t help but think that as Arizona goes, so will Alabama. And so against that diorama; that landscape, the play American Night proceeds to bob and weave its way through American history through the eyes of the immigrant.

American Night runs through April 1 at the . For tickets and information click here.

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