Riverside City College theater’s satirical take on citizenship exam opens Nov. 18

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(Photo courtesy of RCC theater)
By William L.G. Stephens

On paper, everything about the production of Riverside City College’s upcoming theater show “American Night: The Ballad of Juan José” shouldn’t have worked.

From having 80 individual characters played by only nine actors, delays in productions, to having to rehearse with masks on, the odds were not in favor of instructor Chance Dean and his group of thespians.

“Uniquely putting it in this semester was a challenge in a sense we were sharing a space with ‘Addams Family’,” Dean said. “We had a really quick two-week turnaround, the challenge of actual physical space and not being in it until a week ago. We made do with what we had, and we made it work.”

Due to the COVID-19 restrictions implemented for in-person classes, it has been challenging to work on theater productions. Rather than coming undone, the cast and crew of “American Night” used their circumstances to turn their disadvantages into determination.

“This is something we’ve been lacking for a year and a half,” Dean said. “This is the reason why theater still survives and it’s pretty important we get it back.”

The play follows Juan José, a Mexican immigrant, as he has a feverish dream while studying for his American citizenship exam.

The script contains 80 characters, which requires the cast members to play multiple roles.

“While it’s a satire, it gives us a lot of room to play with ethnicity and gender, for the characters (the cast) are playing,” Dean said.

The story highlights the issue of America’s exclusion of important ethnic figures from its history books.

“It’s one of the flaws of America, we leave out our really important people,” freshman actress Amanda Flanagan said.

Flanagan, who plays Viola Pettus said the character shows Juan José the dark truth of America and how it changes his perspective on the country.

“Just getting that balance between not being controlling but being firm,” Flanagan said about the most challenging part of playing Pettus. “Maintaining that balance was something very difficult to portray.”

Getting students to portray characters of different ethnic backgrounds they don’t identify with was another challenge with the casting of the play.

“I’m limited by who walks in the door,” Dean said.

This challenge made it all the more remarkable for RCC sophomore Damien Santoyo, who co-stars in the play with Flanagan.

“The main characters are of Hispanic descent and it’s really nice to see something being put out there representing us,” Santoyo said. “I’m a Latino male, and to see something like that is very inspiring. I’m really happy to have the opportunity to have done this.”

As opening night approaches, Santoyo acknowledged the weight of being center stage. 

“There’s always nerves before the show,” Santoyo said. “But as soon as I step out on the stage, it’s a whole other story and I try to become the characters I portray.”

“American Night: The Ballad of Juan José” will have showings from Nov. 18-21.

The anticipation is palpable.

“These fabulous students had to make up for lost time,” Dean said. “It’s been a high demand for everyone involved. And it makes for a beast of a show.”

Tickets for “American Night: The Ballad of Juan José” are on sale now and free at the RCC box office with a $1 processing fee. Tickets will also be sold at the front door before the show. Seating is limited and proof of vaccination is required at the point of entry for all who attend.

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