'American Night: The Ballad of Juan José'

Since its first fledgling performance on July 4, 1935, Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival has completed the canon of Shakespeare's 37 plays three times, chronicling the forces and personalities that formed a nation's history.

Seventy-five years later, on Saturday, July 3, the festival will premiere "American Night: The Ballad of Juan José," the inaugural production in a groundbreaking series of commissioned plays, also numbering 37, that will examine the events and individuals that shaped the history of the American nation.

"What an impact Shakespeare's plays had on the history of his country, on England's identity," says Alison Carey, director of the theatre history project. "We're asking, 'What is the American identity?' We're commissioning plays that identify 37 key moments of change that make up the quilt of American history."

Conceived by Artistic Director Bill Rauch, "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle" will bring together more than 100 artists, historians and institutions from around the country. The 37 new plays will result in readings and workshops, and up to 15 full productions at OSF between 2010 and 2019.

The first production in the series, "American Night: The Ballad of Juan José," looks at complex truths in American history; the hard moments of uncertainty and injustice that coincide with familiar accounts of greatness and courage.

Mexican national Juan José wants to become an American citizen. As he studies for his U.S. citizenship examination, he falls asleep while listening to the radio. His dreams become a jumble of facts and fantasies as he encounters figures from American history.

"The play is really interesting to start the cycle with," Carey says. "It's exciting to start with a play about a person who is deciding to become an American. To make the choice to change your national identity because of something that this place promises you — imagine the love that would be required to give up everything you've known. That love has to be earned.

"Before you look at American history, it's good to step out and look at it from the outside. When you become a citizen, you are told the positive parts, but history is really complicated. Juan José is able to explore how much more complicated history is than what we learn."

"American Night: The Ballad of Juan José" is directed by Obie Award-winning director Jo Bonney, who co-developed the script with Richard Montoya and Culture Clash, a prominent Los Angeles-based Chicano/Latino performance troupe.

"Their storytelling is very aggressive, irreverent and immediate," Carey says. "Every time you think you're in some safe world, they keep changing the lens. Their courage, energy and exuberance is the best way to start the history cycle."

In addition to initial funding by the Collins Foundation and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the American Revolutions project will be supported by a three-year, $600,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

As one of the oldest and largest repertory companies in the country, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is uniquely positioned to bring forth challenging new works that will impact theatre in America.

"This is an incredibly exciting time," Carey says. "We're bringing in a lot of partners to commission these plays and we're involving other theatres. It's not just about Oregon, it's about the whole country. It's a huge project."

"American Night: The Ballad of Juan José" runs from Saturday, July 3, through Oct. 31 in the New Theatre on the OSF campus. Ticket prices range from $20 to $65. Call 541-482-4331 or visit www.osfashland.org.

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