'American Night' Playwright Richard Montoya: Why Preaching to the Choir Just Won't Do

It’s not hard to suss out where playwright Richard Montoya stands on the immigration issue.

His 2010 play ‘American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose’ features a Mexican man cramming for his U.S. citizenship test who dreams of how immigrants have been mistreated over the years.

American Night

But Montoya isn’t letting Mexicans – or illegal immigrants – off the hook through his art.

“‘American Night’ doesn’t cheerlead for illegal immigration. It’s a problem. I’m not supporting open immigration,” says Montoya, whose celebrated play details how Mexicans often live under the thumb of powerful drug cartels.

Montoya, an actor/playwright and founding member of the satirical comedy trio Culture Clash, includes several Tea Party characters in ‘Night’ during a faux Town Hall meeting. The situation brims with humor, but he thinks the vitriol on both sides of the immigration debate is no laughing matter.

“Issues like immigration are so frozen in amber on both sides of the issue. No one gets a chance to have a conversation about it,” he says.

So Montoya applies a liberal dose of humor to spark a dialogue he says is desperately needed. That means including a disco dancing version of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio in ‘Night.’

“That’s the satire and the weapon, the tool from my tool box. I don’t want to take a gun to the border, just a healthy sense of humor. It helps disarm the other side of the aisle,” he says. What he tries to avoid in his work is tipping the scales too heavily in his own favor.

“If every Mexican immigrant has angel wings and every Anglo is the bogeyman, that will be a disservice,” he says. “I’ve seen those plays before, and it’s bad.”

‘American Night’s’ current incarnation, running through Nov. 20 at Denver’s Ricketson Theatre, references the fledgling Occupy Wall Street movement. He admits both the Tea Party and OWS are “ripe for satire,” the latter in part for its incoherence.

Montoya recalls a conversation with singer Michelle Shocked who had recently visited one of the OWS gatherings.

“She told me, ‘I’m struggling to find the here here, the core, the center. There seems to be a lot of competition within the people camped out.'” he says.

Montoya, whose credits also include appearances in films like ‘Larry Crowne,’ ‘Falling Down’ and ‘Nacho Libre,’ is one of many left-of-center artists working in the entertainment field today. But he’s not itching for more conservatives to add balance to the arts conversation.

“The right isn’t necessarily writing plays, but they dominate the airwaves,” he says. “We need a cool medium, or left, that has a practical element to it.”

Yet Montoya has little interest in preaching to his choir.

“I know I can do the show in L.A. and my Chicano brothers and sisters will follow me. This show needs to be in places like Denver and Phoenix.” And to win over more neutral crowds, Montoya takes a lesson or two from the Right, like the need to pick oneself up by the bootstraps.

“I’m borrowing from the other side of the aisle … Republican ideas that actually work in our favor,” he says.

Montoya is currently wrapping production on his film directorial debut based on his 2006 noir play ‘Water and Power.’ The story of two Chicano brothers – one a police officer, the other a politician – caught the attention of the Sundance Institute which commissioned him to make it into a motion picture.

“We filmed for 12 nights in Los Angeles, a harrowing and rewarding experience,” Montoya recalls, particularly when a homicide occurred not far from the film set.

Few things make Montoya happier than seeing audience members linger after one of his shows. During some performances of ‘American Night,’ patrons are encouraged to take the same citizen’s test that the main character is cramming for in the production.

It’s a serious side to his satirical work, one with direct ties to the thoughtful comedy influences of his youth – ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Monty Python.’ He says the passage of time only enhances his ability to satirize the world around him.

“That’s one of the good things that happens with age, the satirical things get sharper and more surgical,” he says. And that comes in handy when he’s trying to nudge a few hearts or minds, as is the case with ‘American Night.’

“If you find yourself cheering a hardworking immigrant man seeking a legal path to citizenship, let your lawmaker know that,” he says.

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