Ask Philippa: AMERICAN NIGHT Edition

Philippa Kelly, resident dramaturg for Cal Shakes, shares her thoughts on the current production, and invites your questions. American Night runs through June 23, 2013.

Since the Founding Fathers, immigrants to America have been assessed on the basis of their worthiness to be Americans. In American Night, directed by Cal Shakes’ own Jonathan Moscone, it’s America itself that is held up to scrutiny, with all the hilarity and astringent social commentary that is playwright Richard Montoya’s signature style. His work has been described as “living cloth” pulled “from the threads of social fracture and cultural schism that is the world we live in.” In a 100-minute extravaganza, American Night takes us on a breakneck road-trip through American history, in which we see the “mainstream” challenged and reinvented through the jokes, the colloquialisms, the preoccupations, the parodies, of Montoya’s Chicano culture.

Are you going to see our production of American Night? Do you have questions or comments about the production’s cast, themes, creative choices, or anything else? Please leave them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.

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6 Responses to Ask Philippa: AMERICAN NIGHT Edition

  1. Carol Brown says:

    Hi Philippa-
    Thanks for another fascinating Inside Scoops tonight. (I’d mentioned the old Danny DeVito movie Renaissance Man where the out-of-work advertising executive is sent to teach young army misfits as their last chance before they are mustered out of the army; he gets them through Hamlet and explains in the process the effect of the choices that we make.)
    We saw American Night on June 13, and almost the entire audience was on its feet at the end. The reception was one of the most enthusiastic I’ve seen at Cal Shakes–and we have been at all the productions since it began again in its “new” space in Orinda over twenty years ago. On our way out I overheard a young man (18-20) being asked how he enjoyed the performance; his reply was that it was a bit too out-there perhaps for him. (I yearned to tell him to lighten up–but then I thought that he hasn’t lived through much of what I have…nor does he have the understanding of American history that might help him put some of this in perspective.) The KQED review I read just a few minutes ago conveys many of our reactions to the play.
    I was in school in New Orleans in the late 1960′s–had been raised in the suburbs of New York City (my dad worked for years at Rockefeller Center) and was stunned to find that not only were there those who were not smitten with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as I was but that they carried raw hatred. Scenes like the infant in Ku Klux Klan garb reminded me of Spike Lee’s terrific ability to make his point in 4 Little Girls with black and white footage from early 1950′s Birmingham, Alabama showing a parade down main street with whole families in Klan garb while the voice of Art Hanes, Jr., the attorney for Bob Chambliss (one of those responsible for the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church,) is explaining to Spike Lee what a wonderful place Birmingham was in the 1950′s–a good place to raise a family.
    American Night also reminded me of many of John Steinbeck’s observations in America and Americans from the later 1960’s–the paradoxes of what we aspire to be, our falling short of our aspirations, but our continued optimistic pursuit of them. Steinbeck’s tone was frank, admonishing, appreciative and loving—much like that of the playwright.
    Many thanks for all that you, Jonathan, and all involved at Cal Shakes continue to provide.
    Carol Brown

    • philippa kelly says:

      Carol, this is a beautiful response. I’ll pass it on to Jon. It’s interesting, the word, ‘prejudice’ – because it is actually about ‘prejudging’. We go about our lives prejudging all the time – it’s how we remain in a familiar world and have the time and scope to manage our lives. But prejudice becomes potent and toxic when it shuts people down from empathy – making them act out of fear or condemnation or revulsion, in the name of what they think of as ‘instinct.’

  2. Tom Rankin says:

    Watching American Night, I was intrigued and moved by Richard Montoya’s use of dream scenes. It seems a perfect way to expose the surreal quality of things we hear, and Juan Jose hears, in everyday life. Woody Weingarten calls American Night “a textbook definition of madcap…. But its glue is seriousness.” (http://berkeley.patch.com/groups/woody-weingartens-blog/p/cal-shakes-play-cleverly-burlesques-immigration-bias) I agree, and I think the dream scenes help to validate that description.

    A question I wish I’d thought to ask Richard Montoya after the June 2 performance is, What inspired him to use dream sequence in American Night? And I would have loved to hear him riff on the general significance of dream for him.

    I hope everyone gets to see this great play while it’s at CalShakes!

    • philippa kelly says:

      Hello Tom,

      I’ll try to get some answers for you. I think dreams are so interesting because from time immemorial, humans have struggled to understand their dreams. Life doesn’t make sense – so we look to theater, or perhaps to dreams, to help give some shape and form to our experiences. And when theater and dreams come together, you get the potent engine of American Night.

      • philippa kelly says:

        ps Tom, I just thought of another important thing about the dream sequence. This play is about the challenge to the myth of ‘The American Dream’ by another KIND of ‘dream’.

        • Tom Rankin says:

          Philippa,
          You’re so right! That’s a great insight. Thank you!
          And I love the fact that this challenging alternative dream is so full of laughter, as well as the underlying serious commentary.
          Tom

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