What if Howard Zinn Wrote a Vegas Casino Show?

It might play like Milagro Theatre's American Night.

By Ramona DeNies May 5, 2015

The ensemble cast of American Night. Photo credit: Milagro Theatre

A Sumo wrestler slapping his thighs while grunting “sushi, sake, karaoke.” A fifteen-year-old “Sacaje-wawa” in full dental headgear. Celia Cruz, screaming “Azucar!,” flanked by foam-headed sharks. References to Cupcake Wars, Hillary Clinton, Ferguson, and Vine.

Gleefully anachronistic, outrageous, and often uncouth, Milagro Theatre’s American Night—written, on commission for the 2010 Oregon Shakespeare Festival, by Chicano theater troupe Culture Clash's co-founder Richard Montoya—proceeds at such a breakneck pace that its plot, by Act Two, risks jumping the tracks completely.

The near-derailing is intentional, for two reasons. One: it’s a dream! (Or more precisely, the American dream-within-a-dream.) Mexican immigrant Juan José (Osvaldo González), cramming for his US citizenship exam, nods off; while in this fever state, he warps through time and space—one minute reliving the corruption and danger that caused him to flee his home country, the next chatting with Woody Guthrie, Emmett Till, union boss Harry Bridges, and Joan Baez.

Enrique Andrade, Osvaldo González, and Michelle Escobar. Photo credit: Milagro Theatre.

If that historical line-up sounds familiar, you might guess the second reason for the full-throttle theatrics: populist writer Howard Zinn, whose impassioned People’s History of the United States fueled Montoya’s hop-scotching immigrant history. For behind the Neil Diamond song-and-dance, Klansmen in sock gaiters, and cheesy game show motifs, Montoya has a serious question: is America, in fact, the land that welcomes those poor and huddled masses? And if so, can we deliver—have we ever?—on the promises that brought generations of hard-working immigrants to our door?

Called out in Milagro’s handbill for American Night is Zinn’s autobiography You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train; Montoya’s view, like Zinn’s, seems to be that history—whether a national narrative or personal life story—is a tool that, when claimed, can empower the powerless. For Juan José, the act of inventing his own America, Montoya asserts, is how to stay on track in a world intent on denying his very straightforward dream: raising his family in a better place.

Directed by Elizabeth Huffman (Oedipus el Rey), American Night’s dizzying character changes are handled with deftness and zeal by an impressive ensemble cast including Enrique Andrade, Orion Bradshaw, Michelle Escobar, Joe Gibson, Anthony Green, Heath Houghton, Garland Lyons, and Shelley B. Shelley.

American Night runs through May 23 at Milagro Theatre.

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