May 28, 1998
Suddenly, after 14 years, Culture Clash is in demand all over the U.S. The trio brings it all back home in "Bordertown," and this time it's personal.
by Rob Kendt
Ric Salinas is having an LATC flashback. This affliction, endemic to many West Coast theatre artists who had the chance to work at the Los Angeles Theatre Center before it lost its city funding as a fully producing entity in 1991, usually strikes when someone is lamenting the lack of a lively, Public Theatre-style midsized complex in L.A.
For Salinas what triggers it, for the moment, is the persistent presence of a few homeless people outside the D.W. Jacobs rehearsal hall near downtown San Diego, where he and the other members of Culture Clash are rehearsing Culture Clash in Bordertown, a new show commissioned by the San Diego Repertory Theatre which opens at the Rep's Lyceum Space under Horton Plaza this weekend.
Indeed, it was at LATC's notoriously Skid Row-adjacent location in Downtown L.A. that the Bay Area-based comedy trio Culture Clash first splashed onto the SoCal theatre scene with The Mission, a hilariously genre-bending, semi-autobiographical romp about the efforts of a frustrated Chicano comedy trio to have its voice heard. These irrepressible three—Salinas, Richard Montoya, and Herbert Siguenza—have since made their voices heard nationally, both on the regional theatre circuit and, sporadically, on syndicated and public television.
Sitcom pilots, movie appearances, and development deals have come and gone, but what has remained constant for this 14-year-old threesome, now based in L.A., has been its pointedly funny stage work. In the absence of an LATC, where the troupe also presented its brilliant smorgasbord of social satire and shtick A Bowl of Beings, Culture Clash has put in a lot of frequent flyer miles taking its work to New York, Miami, Washington, D.C., and back home to Berkeley.
Previously keeping its stage output to around one show a year, Culture Clash is currently in the midst of its busiest theatre schedule yet: It has spent the last two years touring the country with Radio Mambo, developing Bordertown, and co-writing and staging an adaptation of Aristophanes' The Birds, and the trio is committed on paper through 2001. Next up are two Bay Area commissions: a version of Zorro and a project about San Francisco not unlike the Bordertown's take on San Diego.
And in the last few years, Culture Clash has begun to live up to its name in ways it probably didn't imagine when it first began as a trio of Latino comics at a Cinco de Mayo festival in San Francisco's Mission District in 1984. Where initially its moniker referred to the clash of two more or less distinct cultures—the Chicano/Latino experience as it related to the Anglo American mainstream media—the troupe has of late trained its satirical sights on a far richer mosaic of cultural and racial ironies, from intra-Latino conflicts to the unique narratives of black, Jewish, Anglo, and Asian Americans, without losing its potent, in-your-face political burlesque style, which has always owed as much to the Marx Brothers as to Teatro Campesino.
Its prickly, unapologetic multiculturalism may seem a peculiarly Californian aesthetic, but ironically Culture Clash had to go to Miami to find its beginnings. After A Bowl of Beings played at the Miami Light Project, the Florida company commissioned Culture Clash to create and perform a piece about Miami for a limited run, and a Rockefeller grant with community outreach as its mandate came through to support the commission. Soon Culture Clash found itself, camcorder in hand, interviewing Haitians, Cubans, displaced New York Jews —and then, in a style inspired by Anna Deavere Smith's audacious docudrama Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, transcribing, editing, and enacting these interviews in an anthology called Radio Mambo.
After a splashy limited run in Miami, the troupe and the show hooked up with Roger Guenveur Smith, the extraordinary writer/performer whose one-man A Huey P. Newton Story refined a particular kind of documentary theatre, and Radio Mambo "really changed styles and tones," Montoya recalled. "Roger really forced us to re-examine the material, to reinvest, get rid of all the accoutrements, and say, Hey, these monologues, very stripped down, have a lot of power and beauty to them."
Indeed: The hit 1996 run of Radio Mambo at L.A.'s Tamarind Theatre won the trio Theatre L.A.'s Ovation award for Ensemble Performance, and a staging of this new, honed version—"one trunk, two chairs, three guys, and a light plot," in Montoya's—at the Theatre Communications Group's national conference that same year, with theatre artistic directors from all over the country watching, led directly to the trio's current busy schedule, and to several similar commissions from cities eager to see a Culture Clash "take" on their own ethnic diversity, in what Salinas called "a domino effect."
"But I think we're going to have to turn down Radio Tustin," joked Montoya, who added that the troupe has in fact turned down several commissions, including one from Scottsdale, Ariz. It's more than just wariness of being pigeonholed; the Clashers also have an instinctual revulsion for the "professional multiculturalists" of the American institutional theatre which is rushing to embrace them, eager to "get the biggest multicultural bang for their buck," said Montoya.
Them's fighting words for the members of Culture Clash, who view the 1996 TCG conference as a touchstone for another reason: It was there that playwright August Wilson gave his famous "The Ground on Which I Stand" speech, a bleak account of black theatre in the U.S. in which he dissed colorblind casting and called for more black-originated and black-run performing arts.
Though Wilson's separatist logic reached an absurd conclusion in that speech and in his subsequent clarifications, Culture Clash "latched on," if not to the playwright's rigid distaste for non-traditional casting, then to his heartfelt lament, as Montoya paraphrased it, "Do we necessarily have to transcend our color to reach a place of high art? Isn't our color inextricably linked to who and what make us up? The answer for us is yes. My dad's a poet (José Montoya), and I don't think his great Chicano poems are suddenly going to turn into German poems in the year 2005. What we're fighting is people who have a kind of cosmic no-borders, no-colors philosophy. That's just not the California we live in right now."
Of course, the irony is that only in a culture in which white is not the default race, in which all colors and shades in between can be embraced and celebrated in the arts—in other words, in a kind of "colorblind" society—is it possible to imagine a wider appreciation of both Culture Clash's ethnicity and its work on equal terms. Said Tony Taccone, artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where Culture Clash recently performed The Birds and will next do its Zorro piece, "They've been identified by their ethnicity and not their art for so long, and they're all basically furious about it. Yes, they want to celebrate who they are, and they can't celebrate that without going through their ethnicity, but they want to be appreciated for their work."
The latter is happening, slowly but surely, and on Culture Clash's terms. This month TCG published the playscripts of The Mission, A Bowl of Beings, and Radio Mambo in an anthology called Life, Death, and Revolutionary Comedy, legitimizing the trio's unconventional three-way writing. And if the full slate of commissions and appearances is in part motivated by the kind multicultural grant mandates the Clashers find so exasperating, it is at least as motivated by the desire of regional theatres to diversify their greying white audiences. Theatres can't argue with success: Culture Clash regularly sells out single-ticket seats at subscription-heavy regional houses, a reliable barometer of its attraction for young and not-necessarily-white audiences.
And in any case, it's clear that Culture Clash understands a basic tenet of subversion: The establishment has to give you the rope to hang it. No matter what they think they may get when they invite Culture Clash onto their stages, theatre institutions quickly find out who's in charge.
"People are realizing that the best way to have a Culture Clash show," said Salinas, "is to kind of jump on the train, with the designer and director saying, 'What can we do for you?' instead of 'We're going to do this.' "
"It's an awakening" for theatres, concurred Montoya. "We're not necessarily looking for their vision; we're trying to excavate our vision, and if they can help us bring luster and shine to our vision That's the contract. It's gotta be our show."
In early rehearsal, Culture Clash in Bordertown, directed by San Diego Rep artistic director Sam Woodhouse, looks like an artful blend of Culture Clash's old Bowl of Beings sketch-comedy quilting and its newer, Radio Mambo-style docu-theatre, with recognizable San Diego characters—from spacy Unarians to superannuated Chicano hippes, from Tijuana Chiclet kids to right-wing radio hosts, from black sailors on leave to Asian gangbangers who call each other "nigger"—swirling within a rough narrative of ancestral archeology and alien abduction (with, yes, an implicit play on the connotations of "alien"). It is also a recognizably Culture Clash product, affrontive and hilarious, rueful and buoyant, humanist and unsentimental. These are serious comedians who can invoke Aztlan with reverence in nearly the same breath they refer to "creepy X-Files shit."
If Bordertown feels like a homecoming for these California provocateurs, it is; among the many cities who wanted their own Culture Clash show, San Diego got the honors because its cultural and civic issues are "closer to us," Salinas said. Agreed the Rep's Sam Woodhouse: "There is a powerful personal relationship these guys have to this piece because they're Californians. There are issues, voices, debates flowing through this piece that directly affect their lives, and our lives."
It's no coincidence that this personal vision is flowering at Woodhouse's scrappy, 22-year-old San Diego Rep (which, though not a member of the League of Resident Theatres, pays LORT D wages).
"San Diego Rep deserves it props," said Siguenza, who appeared at the Rep without his Clash colleagues in The True History of Coca-Cola in Mexico a few years back. "We're here because they showed us that of all the regional theatres in Southern California, they're the ones consistently putting up at least one or two Latino plays a year."
Indeed, said Woodhouse, Bordertown is part of the Rep's "Calafia Initiative," which seeks out "new works that speak about the future of this part of the world." Describing his two-theatre Lyceum complex under Horton Plaza as a "cultural town hall," Woodhouse said that to "commission, produce, and co-produce work with a highly significant, tremendous diversity of artists and audiences is the fundamental core of what we do." And with an audience in excess of 30 percent people of color, San Diego Rep may be at the forefront of regional theatres staking out a new audience (a recent Zoot Suit revival, for instance, sold tickets on both sides of the border).
Whether Bordertown becomes the kind of portable perennial that Radio Mambo has become, it's clear that in San Diego, where national lines are harshly delineated but cultural distinctions are in many ways so tellingly blurred, the Clashers are on the same mission they were when they started 14 years ago. They're just better and wiser at it.
"Our plays aren't about assimilation anymore," said Montoya. "We're not asking to be accepted. We haven't decided if we're going to accept you yet. We've gotta decide if we want to accept each other, and that's a 50/50 thing."
As they take their peerless satire on the road to all corners of the U.S., the members of Culture Clash may seem as homeless as the transients outside the rehearsal hall. But that is the stage artist's curse, and his blessing: It is only on the barbed high-wire of live performance that Culture Clash is truly at home.