Theater Review: JUAN AND JOHN (L.A. – Culver City)

by Harvey Perr on May 22, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

Post image for Theater Review: JUAN AND JOHN (L.A. – Culver City)

THE EPIPHANIES THAT COME TO US AFTER BEING HIT IN THE HEAD BY A BASEBALL BAT

Among the happiest of theatergoing experiences is entering the theater, without any expectations whatsoever, and, upon exiting, feeling that your life has been upended to a degree, perhaps even altered.  Roger Guenveur Smith’s soul-stirring Juan and John provides just that kind of experience. It’s not one I’ll soon forget.

I know next to nothing about baseball, and, never reading the sports page, know less than nothing about the famous brawl between Giants pitcher Juan Marichal and Dodgers catcher John Roseboro – in which, after some unpleasant words were uttered, Marichal hit Roseboro on the side of his head with a baseball bat – which informs Smith’s solo piece. I couldn’t imagine a less promising introduction to an evening of theater. What I hadn’t counted on was the commitment of Smith to a multitude of complex feelings that were tied to this event in his mind, or the explosion of humanity that was bursting to come to the surface.

Juan and John  Roger Guenveur Smith Center Theatre Group/Kirk Douglas Theatre Smith brings Marichal and Roseboro to such vivid life in a mind-splitting display of intense connection that one feels as if one is watching a whirlwind in constant movement as he crosses from one man to the other in an effort to finally join them together as their story unfolds and evolves. But his drama isn’t merely about recreating that fateful fight in the summer of 1965 in the middle of a game in Candlestick Park, but about the Watts riots of that same year, and about race in general, and about the political spirit nurtured by those two events, and it is also the story of forgiveness and redemption, and about the yearning of Smith himself to be forgiven and redeemed by his daughter for a transgression of his own. That he has so intricately woven all these disparate elements into one bold statement would alone be the stuff of powerful theater.  Yet it is his galvanizing presence which gives the piece such visceral release.  (I may not be a baseball fan, but, at some moment during the course of Smith’s heartfelt telling of his tale, I was reminded of an event in my own childhood – one that I hadn’t thought of in ages – when, nervous as any 10-year-old boy would be under the same circumstances, I had to read from the Bible at an assembly in my public school in Brooklyn, as the guests of honor, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, sat behind me on the auditorium stage.)

Juan and John  Roger Guenveur Smith Center Theatre Group/Kirk Douglas Theatre Not all the threads in Smith’s rich tapestry come together; sometimes, one strand doesn’t necessarily meld comfortably with another. But, in the end, it doesn’t matter. What is always there is the feeling that Smith himself is that rare thing: a true mensch. He has no control, thank goodness, over his genuinely human instincts; the tears he sheds are not the kind which can be faked. Especially when we are crying along with him. Standing ovations seem to be de rigeur these days, but the standing ovation Smith received on the night this reviewer attended was so spontaneous and warm that one felt it was wholeheartedly deserved. Juan and John is essential, if anything running in Los Angeles at the moment is essential.

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

photos by Craig Schwartz

Juan and John
scheduled to close May 29 at time of publication
for tickets, visit http://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/

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