Culture Clash: Chicano Docu-comedy
Culture Clash is a group of three comedian/actor/dramatist/documentarians who have been collaborating together for twenty-two years. Their work explores Chicano culture and the intersection of other cultures with Chicano culture. The group is known for being able to both poke fun at and lionize Chicanismo (Mexican-American pride.) With its roots in El Teatro Campesino of Northern California, Culture Clash attempts to begin political dialogue about culture and differences between cultures. Broad topics include racism, homophobia, machismo, revolution, and violence. Perhaps more significantly, Culture Clash has created dialogue about important political topics in Chicano communities across the western United States as well as in Latino diasporic communities on the east coast. Most importantly, Culture Clash’s unique brand of performance is infused with self-effacing, gender-bending, pop culture-filled, satirical humor. Their work also exhibits a profound belief in the theatre as a form with the ability to build community, and a faith in its audience as a powerful force for exacting social change.
Spanning over two decades, their work includes the plays Radio Mambo, Chavez Ravine, Bordertown, Nuyorican Stories and an (extremely free) adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Birds. Also widely performed is a compilation piece of five of their shows, which has toured as Culture Clash in Americca. Two separate anthologies of their plays have been published by Theatre Communications Group and the group has performed across the country.
The Early Years: Comedy Fiesta
Culture Clash was founded on Cinco de Mayo in 1984. This day is significant as a holiday celebrating Mexican victory in battle that is celebrated more in the United States than it is in Mexico. The original six members were first brought together by René Yáñez, the curator of Galería de la Raza in San Francisco, California. The original members of Culture Clash—then called Comedy Fiesta—were José Antonio Burciaga, Marga Gómez, Richard Montoya, Monica Palacios, Ric Salinas and Herbert Sigüenza. They performed at the Galería’s Cinco de Mayo celebration, bringing comedy to a venue mostly concerned with political change and serious issues. Sigüenza says of the first performance: “What happened that night was truly magical. I mean, I think the audience knew, we knew, that this was something really exciting and new and different, you know? There had never been Latino comedy, urban comedy, like that before” (CC, Life xv) A year later on May fifth, 1985, the group had renamed itself Culture Clash (an homage to British pop music group Culture Club.) By late 1988, the group’s number had been reduced to three: Richard Montoya, a Chicano, influenced as a child by the United Farmworker’s Union movement in California; Ric Salinas, a Salvadoreño who immigrated to California with his parents and grew up in San Francisco; and Herbert Sigüenza, a Salvadoran-American who returned to El Salvador to live before getting a degree in art at the California College of Arts and Crafts. The three were from various artistic disciplines: Sigüenza is a visual artist, Montoya a comedian, and at the time Culture Clash was founded, Salinas was “rapping bilingually and break dancing” (CC, Life xi).
Early Forays into Narrative Theatre
In 1988, after Culture Clash had been touring as a stand-up comedy and cabaret act, they decided to write their first play as a trio. The Mission is a full-length original comedy about three out of work actors in San Francisco who are unsuccessful in all of their artistic endeavors. After a series of failed and hilarious auditions and odd-jobs, including a sketch where Herbert gets a job at Taquería Serra: Heavenly Tacos (where the customers want quesadillas without cheese and mistakenly order tacos al cabrón), the three turn to kidnapping as a way to become famous. They decide to kidnap Julio Iglesias, who turns his back on his Latino identity and changes his name to “July Churches.” This contemporary Latino frustration with San Francisco’s Mission District is juxtaposed with the oppression of the native Indios by mission-builder Junípero Serra in sequences traveling back to the days of the Spanish settlers in California.
A Bowl of Beings is less of a unified narrative than The Mission, exploring a wide range of topics, centering on Chicanismo. Bowl incorporates dance sequences, spoken-word poetry, and music sequences with ridiculous but politically charged skits. “The First Chicano Opera, 1492” is an entire sequence criticizing the celebration of Columbus Day that is sung operatically by the three comedians. Later in the show, Chuy, a Chicano activist, through some suspect voodoo magic, resurrects Ché Guevara in order to restart the Chicano revolution. The show closes with a sequence entitled “Stand and Deliver Pizza (The Last Chicano Movie, 1992)” a politically charged send-up of the 1988 Edward James Olmos.
Other works during this time include Carpa Clash, a Christmas show with an immaculate conception among Chicano workers: “even if their child turns out to be the Son of God, he’ll be deported as an illegal alien by Gov. Pete Wilson,” and 1992’s S.O.S.: Comedy for These Urgent Times, a show in response to the Los Angeles riots in April of that year (Everett). All four of these shows have been criticized for losing steam. They start strong, reviewers seem to say, but run out of energy as they progress. The laughs, as well, are easily won in these shows, but at the expense of deeper analysis and honest exploration of cultural gaps.
Documentary Theatre: the Americca Plays
1994 marked a turning point for Culture Clash. At the behest of a group called Miami Light, the Clash was invited to perform A Bowl of Beings for the Miami community and was then invited back, supported by a Rockefeller grant to write a show about the Cuban immigrant experience in Miami. Culture Clash “invaded” Miami, did seventy interviews, and built a show based on these interviews and the conflicting (and communal) points of view their interviewees shared. The result of this project: Radio Mambo, is a huge shift from the way that Culture Clash had previously worked. Rather than a series of broad comedic sketches, Radio Mambo is a portrait of the city of Miami: a poignant exploration of the tensions in the city between races and among people of the same race. Always complex, Radio Mambo looks at Miami as in interconnected web of immigrant communities: Cuban, Haitian, Jewish, with varying goals and dreams, and how those communities interact with the established inhabitants, white, black, and Cuban immigrants from earlier generations.
The three comedians had always played numerous characters, but had restricted their portrayals to Chicano/Latino and white characters. The Miami project required that Culture Clash take on an even wider array of roles. Montoya, Sigüenza and Salinas move with ease from playing WASP socialites in one scene to black prison inmates in another to portrayals as outrageous as a sequence where Salinas and Sigüenza play a Cuban-American couple with Montoya as the family dog. The effect is extraordinary. Like the work of Anna Deavere Smith (an obvious inspiration for the Clash), the three men are able to cross cultural boundaries, effecting sensitive, powerful portrayals of cultures reacting to other cultures. When a Salvadoran-American man performs the gestures and words of an immigrant from Haiti, ideas about essential “blackness” and cultural divides seem to disappear at least for a moment. Radio Mambo, then, is at once painting a picture of a divided city: displaying images of a region with a wide array of opposing views. At the same time, all of these racial, sexual, cultural, age and gender differences are articulated by the same three men. If a group of Latino comedians can perform all of these differences, how far apart, Radio Mambo asks, can all of these points of view really be?
Culture Clash, having hit upon a sought-after format with Radio Mambo, continued to exploit this writing technique and performance format. San Diego Repertory Theatre in California commissioned a theatrical project about the city of San Diego utilizing a similar method of exploration: monologues and short scenes based on interviews with the residents of the city of San Diego. From this commission, the Clash crafted Bordertown, not simply the story a single city, but a duet of sorts between two cities: San Diego, California on one side of the United States border and Tijuana, Mexico on the other. The show deals with the relationship between these cities and the specific issues the cities and their residents deal with as neighbors. Similar projects appeared in the following years as Arena Stage commissioned a city project for Washington D.C., INTAR Hispanic American Arts Center commissioned one for New York City, and BRAVA! for Women in the Arts commissioned one for San Francisco. The resulting shows, Anthems: Culture Clash in the District, Nuyorican Stories and The Mission Magic Mystery Tour, after being performed in their respective cities, were all eventually combined with Radio Mambo and Bordertown into a single evening of theatre that the group toured as Culture Clash in Americca.
Newer Documentary Work: Los Angeles and Beyond
Since Culture Clash in Americca, the group has been working on new methods of site-specific exploration. Chavez Ravine is a documentary work that investigates the Chicano community that was living in the downtown Los Angeles area of Chavez Ravine. In the 1950s, the people residing in the area were removed from their homes to make way for what became Dodger Stadium, an enormous arena and eventual home of the city’s baseball team (purchased from the city of Brooklyn.) The show is at once an exposé of corruption in 1950s Los Angeles, an affirmation of the Chicano contribution to the city and a hilarious, thought-provoking history lesson based on interviews, historical data and radio broadcasts. Chavez Ravine is framed by world-series winning 1981 season of the Los Angeles Dodgers, where the Rookie-of-the-Year and Cy Young Award winner was Chicano pitcher Fernando Valenzuela.
Their subsequent works have also been California-based shows. Water & Power, an exploration of corruption in Los Angeles that centers (as most corruption in the city does) on water has been called “an exciting venture for Culture Clash, a movement away from satiric sketch comedy to more traditional drama” (McNulty E1). Zorro in Hell is a comedic play that Montoya says is “unmasking a myth and asks us all to find our inner Zorros and fight for social justice” (qtd. in Welsh E1).
The Clash have called these most recent three works, Chavez Ravine, Zorro in Hell and Water & Power, their “California Trilogy”; the term seems to signify that the group has reached another turning point in its history (Welsh E1). It seems safe to assume, however, that Herbert Sigüenza, Ric Salinas and Richard Montoya, who have been going strong and working tirelessly together since 1984, will remain committed to the work that has defined Culture Clash for over a decade: irreverent comedy, the Chicano perspective and documentary theatre.