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  • Kevin Berne

    The California Shakespeare Theater production of "American Night " stars Dena Martinez, background, Sean San José, left, and Brian Rivera.

  • Mario Ayala

    Actor and playwright Richard Montoya, wrote "American Night."

Sacramento native Richard Montoya's play 'American Night' to Cal Shakes

Published: Friday, Jun. 14, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11TICKET
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2013 - 8:37 am

As busy as he has been lately, playwright and actor Richard Montoya happily returns to his Sacramento roots whenever possible.

Tonight, he'll be at Old Ironsides checking out the reunion of the Tattooed Love Dogs, his brother Vince's band. Saturday, he'll be over in the Orinda hills at California Shakespeare Theater, taking in a performance of his play "American Night: The Ballad of Juan José." Afterward, he'll participate in an audience talk-back with director Jonathan Moscone.

"Orinda is not exactly downtown Berkeley, but I'm really looking forward to using the satire and the humor to take back the town hall and open up a conversation," Montoya said via cellphone from Chavez Ravine, near his Silver Lake home, as he bought Dodger tickets on a rare day of relaxation.

The Cal Shakes discussion should be lively, as Montoya's hallucinatory play pokes provocative fun at serious issues such as immigration and the often- myopic telling of American history.

In the play, Juan José, a Mexican immigrant fleeing the drug cartels in his homeland, falls asleep while studying for his American citizenship test. He dreams of an alternative American history that isn't in the textbooks. The play references Japanese internment camps, Mormons, TV game shows, Sacagawea, Woodstock, Bob Dylan, baseball and the Ku Klux Klan.

Sacred cows are definitely sullied in the show, but Montoya has always been an equal-opportunity lampooner.

With "American Night" (as well as his previous work with Culture Clash, the Chicano performance troupe), Montoya has incited spirited conversation at major theaters around the country.

Though Montoya's comic irony sits comfortably in the politically left-leaning East Bay, the writer had questions about how "American Night" would be received.

"I know I can rock the MEChA crowd (the student organization Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) at Sac State, and I know it will play well in L.A., but I wasn't so sure about its maiden voyage," Montoya said of the "American Night" world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010.

He needn't have worried. As the first production of the OSF's ambitious series of commissions the American History Cycle, the show, which Montoya also performed in, set attendance records.

Since "American Night" premiered at OSF, it has had productions at Yale Repertory Theater, Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles, the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, the Denver Center Theatre Company and the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts in Anchorage.

"(The play) got some sea legs and some land legs and I'm really pleased because the writer in me gets to keep coming at it," said Montoya, who will tweak the play to fit its actors, as he did for Sean San José, the lead in the Cal Shakes production.

Montoya's work has always been an antic mixture of sharp comedy, brash politics, studied literary depth and subtle theater craft. The intention is to have an audience laughing during the show and thinking about it later.

Montoya comes by his influences from his father, the former Sacramento poet laureate and artist José Montoya, and his uncle, the artist Malaquías Montoya.

"There seems to me to be a responsibility as an artist and those who call themselves artists, and that responsibility for me is deep-seated in the work of José and my Uncle Malaquías," Montoya said.

"I just remember growing up we'd go to other people's homes and there'd be landscapes and painted cats on the walls, and at our house it was M16s wrapped in barbed wire, the hunger strikers, art from Cuba, and art from Vietnam," he said. "This not only influenced me, it was like being in a foundry."


What: Richard Montoya's dreamlike take on American history

Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (formerly 100 Gateway Blvd.), Orinda

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays- Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 4 p.m Sundays; through June 23. Grounds open for picnicking two hours before curtain.

Tickets: $35-$71 with discounts available for seniors, students, theatergoers age 30 and under and groups.

Information: (510) 548-9666 or

Call The Bee's Call The Bee's Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.

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