Richard Montoya on 'American Night,' Immigration and the Changing Face of America (Q&A)

Courtesy of LA Theatre Works

The playwright, whose "American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose" premiered in 2010, spoke with THR about the staged reading of his work for L.A. Theatre Works, running through May 18, at UCLA's James Bridges Theater.

When American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose premiered back in 2010, the play's satirical take on Mexican immigrants and the pursuit of a dubious American dream seemed like the right play at the right time. Arizona’s controversial law, SB 1070, allowing police to stop people with “reasonable suspicion,” was making headlines, as was the record number of deportations carried out under the Obama administration. The Dream Act, offering a path to citizenship, was derided as amnesty by Republicans and within months emerged a statistic that sent chills down spines of the whitest of the white -- by 2050 Caucasians would represent less than 50 percent of the U.S. population.

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Cut to four years later and not a lot has changed. Only some of these divisions have deepened and threats to free speech and the middle class have become endemic, notes playwright Richard Montoya. As such, he’s considering updating American Night in places, though not before this weekend’s staged reading for L.A. Theatre Works, running through May 18, at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater.

Known for their collection of over 400 classic plays featuring an array of famous actors, L.A. Theater Works productions are heard in over 80 markets in the U.S., including KPFK here in Los Angeles. The best moments will be culled from each performance to make a single recording suitable for broadcast.

The cast will include Keith Jefferson, Sean San Jose, Herbert Siguenza, Todd Nakagawa, Kimberly Scott and Montoya. Shana Cooper will direct this satiric journey of a cop who tries to escape corruption in Mexico by moving to the U.S. As he takes the citizenship test, he falls asleep dreaming of an America populated by Elvis impersonators, Hare Krishnas and Michael Moore, spanning from Manzanar detention camp to Mexico City for the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Montoya sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about immigration, Obama and the changing face of America.

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How has the public’s perception of immigration changed from the time you and Culture Clash developed the play?

The issue has only gotten even hotter. There are new developments even in the last couple of months. The Obama administration, who (sic) we all fought very hard to elect, twice, and I worked tirelessly and will again, the current policy of detaining immigrants and the aggressiveness of some of the federal agencies, it’s a little creepy to me. All that entrepreneurial shit Obama talked about, what about the cannabis clubs? Better let Mexicans run the cannabis clubs and the economy might get a bounce.

The administration holds the record for deportation. Why do you think that is?

For a man with African roots of another continent, it’s a little baffling to me. Easy on fracking, hard on immigrants, it really should be the other way around but it’s not. I don’t know who he wants to be tough for. The far right doesn’t like this man. I don’t think they’re applauding his efforts. It just leaves me really scratching my head.

It seems the erosion of the middle-class would have a direct impact on your character, Juan Jose.

We see, for no reason whatsoever, gas prices just keep spiking, just keep giving it to the middle class. The wealthy are continuing to get wealthy and the middle class are getting squeezed out. What we’re doing is building a much, much lower class of people that are willing to do a lot of things for very little money. I’m not quite sure where it’s heading, but I just know in my gut that the Mexican immigrant is an easy target.

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In the play, Joan Baez talks about the power of the First Amendment. Since then we’ve seen the Snowden affair and other attacks on free speech. How do you see the current condition of the First Amendment?

It’s getting more and more interesting and more and more murky. As a playwright and a person who is interested in having a voice, a person whose plays have been banned until recently in a place like Arizona, given the anti-immigrant hysteria of Sheriff Arpaio and the lawmakers there in Arizona, they banned Shakespeare and Culture Clash from the high schools there. American Night was pre-Snowden, so I think to have Juan Jose question that, maybe this in area where some new material might be called for because maybe even a couple of years ago that line was a little more black and white.

What about the fear some white people have about the census report predicting white people will be less than 50 percent of the country by the year 2050?

I do a lot of traveling for performance and the white guy is alive and well. "What happened? We can’t tell politically incorrect jokes anymore?" It’s a whiny cry, a thin-skinned flabby whiny cry. I guess if I was a middle-aged white guy I might look around and see there’s a younger aggressive population coming on and they’re right, it’s coming. Whatever they have to do about it, it’s going to be how that culture clashes. And I want to be there to write about it.