Twenty years, this trio of Chicano actors created a socially and politically charged performance group which began as a sketch comedy exercise in the spirit of Teatro Campesino. Since then this collaboration has evolved with full length pieces such as this current examination of diversity in AmeriCCa, their America. In the past Culture Clash has created works in response the L.A. riots, a tribute to Cesar Chavez, and examinations of Hispanic life in New York and Miami., plus Washington D.C.'s response to 9/11/02. "Chavez Ravine", about the community displaced to build the new Dodger Stadium, was commissioned by the Mark Taper Forum. Now it's Boston's turn. Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza spent time here last fall interviewing folks around the area and observing quaint local customs, including the long-overdue triumph of the Red Sox. They've interspersed these new pieces with updated selections from earlier shows, creating a ninety-minute roller-coaster which ricochets around the country. Brown, black, and white Americans have come under their comic scrutiny. The result is a show that alternately thoughtful, moving, and hilarious, sometimes at the same time. Culture Clash's technique has been compared to that of Anna Devere Smith, but their approach is more comic, seeking out universal foibles.
Though all three members have substantial credits,the best known actor in the group, Richard Montoya serves as titular director. Collaboration is obviously key to all aspects of their work. Montoya presents the most serious moment of the evening, a new slant on the clergy sex-abuse scandal stressing forgiveness. Ric Salinas is the most boisterous comic, but he too scores thoughtful points playing all ages, genders, and ethnicities, though his signature routine is how to tell Latinos' ethnic background by the way they dance salsa. Herbert Siguenza has several flamboyant turns, especially as a black male prostitute, now working as a health counselor in San Francisco while he prepares for a sex change operation. Diversity with a vengance. All three are masters of quick change and have amazing ears for the various voices of America, recent immigrants and well-established. Their artistry is in the tradition of Dario Fo and the long line of jesters back to the sacred clowns.
The stage is backed by a huge American flag almost drained of color, which serves as a projection surface. In first moments of the show, the image overlaid is the new moon and evening star seen on several Middle Eastern flags. Montoya dressed in white arises from a prayer rug to portray an Arabic cab driver in Washington DC, just after 9/11/02. Things stay serious until he notes that his children, born here, have become Americanized. "They now worship Allah and Nike." In later scenes, a few chairs and the odd props add to the staging. Siguenza, who's responsible for their costumes, uses a basic black base for each member with a lot of variable headgear, plus a few wigs and beards. Ken Elliot's versatile lighting changes the mood almost as fast as the cast changes character. This show is a great example of Lope de Vega's observation that "all theatre needs is four barrels, four boards, and a passion." Culture Clash has passion to spare. And a lot of complicated observations for those who listen, instead of merely laughing at the obvious stereotypes. Let's hope they'll be back in our neighborhood soon. Their collaborative has projects coming up in New Haven and New York, as well as on the Left Coast. Viva la raza.
It goes without saying, and therefore needs to be noted, that the America's Latino heritage has been largely missing from the stage. This season in Boston, we've almost gotten an overdose. Nilo Cruz' "ANNA in the Tropics" just closed next door to this theatre, Lisa Loomer's "Living Out", set in L.A., is playing a few blocks away, while the Jorge Hermenez Cultural Center down the street, the focus of Boston's Puerto Rican community, just hosted the Actors' Shakespeare Company doing a modern dress "Measure for Measure", pointedly not Latinized. And the inaugural production in the new Calderwood Pavilion was Melinda Lopez' "Sonia Flew", a complex family drama about Cuban's, Castro, and exile. Maybe the dramaturgs for our major university theatres should be learning Spanish and reading works from our neighbors in Latin America. Or at least from Mexico.
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