Viola Pettus was a self-trained black nurse who, with the help of her husband, Ben, set up an encampment/tent hospital in the West Texas outback not far from the Mexican border, to treat victims of the Spanish flu epidemic that was raging through the region in 1918. Among her challenges was treating anybody in need: These included Mexican wayfarers who had crossed the border illegally, fever-plagued soldiers from Pancho Villa’s band and Ku Klux Klanners from the local towns.
Her insistence on turning away nobody put her, and her hospital, in administrative and political hot water with Texas authorities, who were as obsessed then as now with stemming the flow of undocumented immigrants. This explains why her encampment was hidden away.
Not much has been written about Viola Pettus, but playwright Richard Montoya is as insistent on including her in the annals of American history as she was insistent on treating the sick of all ages and colors. She was, after all, a Christian, and the services she offered were a manifestation of what Christianity meant to her.
The saga of Viola Pettus is just one in many sketches, which flip from farcical to poignant, in Montoya’s play American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose, developed in collaboration with Montoya’s sketch comedy troupe Culture Clash and director Jo Bonney. The play premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010 and now is rolling through the Southland at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, on the heels of a run at La Jolla Playhouse.
In that sketch, Viola (Kimberly Scott), hears the appeal of a local Klansman (David Kelly) to save the life of his child. After she orders him to set down the revolver he arrives waving, and to remove his sheets (which she takes for her hospital, in exchange for treatment), she recognizes him as a local judge. Meanwhile, a Mexican soldier (Montoya) also has an ill baby in critical care.
After a series of quips by the encampment’s visitors (the farce includes characters from the 19th century referring to Hare Krishnas and filmmaker Michael Moore), Viola emerges from the tent with the comforting news that both infants have weathered the illness and will survive. The Klansman and the Mexican soldier, overwrought with emotion, approach each other, motivated by dueling forces of camaraderie and ethnic contempt. Their arms open as though for an embrace and then lock in midair, frozen and quavering, until they manage a very brief, reluctant and awkward hug. Both near tears, one of them says, “Maybe now they can grow up and get to hate each other.”
The joke is a telling snippet of the way this play continually has idealism and cynicism wrestling with each other, as in other Montoya/Culture Clash plays presented by CTG, such as Chavez Ravine, a history of how the building of Dodger Stadium eviscerated Mexican-American neighborhoods using eminent domain as a cover to enrich a political-business clique. Throughout, that play poked fun at L.A.’s bureaucrats and the Mexican-American residents (and their divided loyalties), while unveiling the injustice perpetrated on them with a powerful undercurrent of indignation.
In American Night, the scope is national rather than local, studying the “fever dream” of everyman Juan Jose (René Millán), a documented immigrant who falls asleep while studying for his U.S. citizenship exam. He’s still haunted by the drug wars and corruption of his homeland; characters and scenes from the U.S. history he’s been studying toss in his brain and unfold onstage through a picaresque sojourn and series of cartoons. His dream comes with the beautiful visual assistance of Shawn Sagady’s projection design.
It’s a bit like a cross between Woody Allen’s movie Zelig, featuring a title character who somehow shows up at the most momentous moments of history, and George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum, a series of sketches through African-American history that takes a hard look at black stereotypes, in a search for contemporary identity and meaning.
Juan Jose’s core struggle in the play is that of either participating in or witnessing events that defy Viola Pettus’ interpretation of Christianity, and dramatize the unfolding of U.S. history as a history of the divide between its founding principles, over which he’s been poring, and its actions. All men are created equal. Protection from unreasonable search and seizure. In the cloud of these words, Juan Jose finds himself pressured by U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Trist and his U.S. cavalry contingent to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in Mexico City. This is the treaty that annexed huge swaths of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Arizona, plus all of Nevada and California, while relegating everyone outside those borders to alien status, from the U.S. view.
Juan Jose also finds himself at California’s Manzanar detention camp for Japanese-American U.S. citizens, stripped of their property and imprisoned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, entirely because of their ethnicity and their heritage. There he meets Ralph Lazo (Stephanie Beatriz), a Mexican-American high schooler from East L.A. who, outraged by seeing his Japanese-American peers hauled away to Manzanar, voluntarily joined them there.
In all of these sketches, and others, Juan Jose is haunted by the memory of the pregnant wife (Beatriz, again) he left behind in Mexico for his long walk north. She’s like the Madonna, appearing as different characters in his dream, guiding him, reminding him of somebody and something he’s willing to surrender for an unknowable future. This adds a blanket of almost theological romanticism over all the jokes and ad libs.
By the time he awakens to the realities of his exam, Juan Jose is having serious doubts about whether he even wants to become a U.S. citizen. But no worries: Turning down citizenship would be like pissing on the pitcher’s mound of Dodger Stadium, simply un-American.
Bonney’s staging, with her fine ensemble of nine, most playing multiple characters, nimbly blend the satirical, the farcical and the tender.
Texas was and remains a largely Christian state, yet the U.S. Justice Department has had to strike down the Texas legislature’s attempt to squelch voter fraud, which the feds regard as bogus and which disenfranchises minority voters. The interpretation of Christianity and the U.S. Constitution has always been a net of far-flung opposites. The unanswerable questions are fundamental: Who gets in to vote? Who gets in to live? Who gets into heaven?
American Night is, at its core, a descendent of the allegorical, medieval Christian morality play Everyman. This is the story of a fellow at whom God is angry (for ignoring Him) and sentences him to death. But death isn’t the end of anything in the Middle Ages. It’s the beginning of an eternity in heaven or hell. Everyman’s task is to gather witnesses to how he lived his life in order to provide evidence for Saint Peter, who will determine his final destination. American Night is simply an inversion of that theme: Juan Jose isn’t on trial, but El Norte is. At stake, and at issue, is whether Juan Jose, in becoming an American, can enter heaven or will be relegated to hell.
In Everyman, the only character willing to follow the title character into the grave to meet Saint Peter is Good Deeds. Our Good Deeds follow us everywhere, the play preaches. Kindness is Christian. Kindness is Viola Pettus.
Just try to be kind, both plays say. And where’s the harm in that?
AMERICAN NIGHT: THE BALLAD OF JUAN JOSE | By Richard Montoya, developed by Culture Clash and Jo Bonney | Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. | Through April 1 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org