Saturday's showing of "American Night: The Ballad of Juan José" is more than the opening of a single play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It is the beginning of a 10-year cultural conversation called "American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle."
When OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch came in 2007, he had a number of ambitious goals, and the history cycle was near the top of the list.
"It sprang from his brain," said Alison Carey, director of the U.S. History Cycle for OSF. "He was thinking Shakespeare did the history of his country — we should do the same for ours."
Starting with "American Night," OSF plans to commission 37 works (the same number as in Shakespeare's canon) that will hit on a diverse cross section of historical themes and events and use a wide range of styles.
"It's actually kind of tricky doing history sometimes," Carey said. "It's not about dates and facts, it's more about the context."
"American Night" encapsulates many aspects of the spirit of the cycle. It examines an often overlooked aspect of the American experience, it is strongly rooted in present-day events and is presented in a distinct style unlikely to be repeated in later "American Revolutions" offerings.
In the play, Juan José is a Mexican national getting ready for his U.S. citizenship exam. Falling asleep with his "Citizen's Almanac of U.S. History" and the sound of talk radio in the background, José has a dream experience which takes him through a series of historic events, many of them focused on the Hispanic experience in America. The checkered past the U.S. has on the subject of immigration plays out, showing both the good and bad.
"Most people who are born here never have to make that decision (whether to change citizenship)," Carey said. "We have a complicated relationship with immigrants."
The play was written by Richard Montoya and Culture Clash, a Los Angeles-based theater company. Montoya was in Ashland to speak in May during the OSF gathering to introduce the season's new plays. At the same time, things were heating up as Arizona passed a law considered by some to be anti-Hispanic.
"I'm thrilled to be in a state where we're not considered to be possible illegal aliens," Montoya said at the time. "It's going to be really interesting to be in that [historic] moment as the piece is also wanting to be in that moment."
The concrete relationship between the past and present in "American Night" is exactly the kind of thing Carey hopes to achieve through the cycle. As the U.S. is in constant flux, she believes theater can open doors to new ways of seeing and talking about the nation.
"I grew up with certain assumptions but in the past 10 years, a lot of those assumptions have been called into question," she said. "For theater to examine society as it's unfolding is important. Stasis is not going to serve us. What America is is constantly changing, and Oregon is facing the same challenges we all are.
"It's a conversation Bill and I have been having for a long time," Carey said.
Another example of putting history in context will come to life in the production of "Ghost Light" in the New Theatre during the 2011 season.
The play explores the 1978 killing of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. It was conceived by Moscone's son Jonathan Moscone and written by Tony Taccone.
"It's an incredibly intimate look at an incredibly public moment," Carey said.
"Ghost Light" is also an example of a co-commissioned play for the History Cycle, and will play at Berkeley Repertory Theater after closing in Ashland. Many of the plays in the cycle will be co-commissioned, which will open up the discourse to communities across the nation.
"It's a big conversation," Carey said. "We don't want it to be just us having it."
To further keep the scope of the cycle from being limited, OSF leaves the topics and styles of the plays in the hands of the writers, commissioning plays based on the quality of the pieces rather than trying to cover specific areas of history.
"If we decide what American history is, we're going to be closing more doors than we're opening," Carey said. "We're looking for artists whose work we're excited by."
Carey has a background in history on top of her dramaturgical and theater experience, which givers her a unique view on the 10-year cycle.
"I studied history as an undergraduate and it was incredibly helpful. It's a conversation I love to have every day," she said. "It's a great honor to be part of this project and OSF is a theater that can pull this off."
Myles Murphy is an editor and reporter with the Daily Tidings. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.