ballad juan jose

(L to R) Matthew Heredia, Cooper Bennett, Marcos Rivas Sanchez and Clarissa Evans. Photo by Tom Chown

By Robert Digitale

If I ever have to leave my homeland and make a new life in another country, I’d like to have someone like Juan José accompany me.

The protagonist of Santa Rosa Junior College’s latest theater production seems a good-hearted companion when encountering the bad and the beautiful of a new land. In “American Night: The Ballad of Juan José,” he finds himself dreaming of a U.S. history that encompasses the whacky, the vulgar, the brave and the heartbreaking. It’s all part of his search for answers that can help him pass the all-important exam for becoming a U.S citizen.

Friday’s opening night succeeded because the cast was able to regularly blend comedy and pathos in a jumble of history lessons: the Mexican-American War, the Lewis & Clark expedition, the Manzanar War Relocation Center, which confined 10,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Along the way, Juan José meets Jackie Robinson, major league baseball’s first African American player, and Australian immigrant Harry Bridges, who helped form the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Cast member Marcos Rivas Sanchez effortlessly embodies the wide-eyed Juan José, a modern-day stranger in a strange land. In his cross-cultural encounters, he displays enough Forrest Gump innocence to get away with calling Lewis & Clark’s Native American guide “Saca-chihuahua.” And yet the former Mexican policeman is wise enough to realize it would have been soul-sucking to take bribes from drug cartels but still fatal to refuse the money. With few options, he runs for asylum to the U.S. and gets a green card. He becomes one of the nation’s millions of invisible immigrants. It’s not enough. He needs to become an American citizen so that his wife and infant son can join him.

The play, originally commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, reminds us of that striking American notion: that all people are created equal and “endowed by their Creator” with such unalienable rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Juan José’s journey points out that too often we fail to live up to that ideal. But still it captures our imagination and raises the stakes in the struggle that Juan José embarks upon. Because the country his child inherits, our children will inherit, too.

Kudos to Director Reed Martin and cast members Raina Pope, Danny Banales, Tia Starr, Sam Spurling, Jimmy Toro Ruano, Matthew Heredia, Allegra O’Rourke, Cooper Bennett, Clarisa Evans, Jose Luis del Toro Jr. and Travis Philipsen.

The play resumes Wednesday through Sunday March 15. For tickets and show times, click here.

Next come the musical “Footloose,” which runs April 17 through May 3.