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Cultural chameleons: the irreverent sketch comedy of Culture Clash has developed into sophisticated docu-comedies that revolve around a geographic hub and the disparate perspectives of its local inhabitants.

If the last 19 years writing and performing conscious comedy with Culture Clash have taught Herbert Siguenza anything, it's focus. "At one point you have to decide whether you're an activist or an artist. Our battle was getting on stage, reaching audiences, and doing a great job of educating and enlightening, and exposing our culture. To me, that's as important as organizing a rally."

Being an artist is a full-time job for Siguenza, who, along with co-conspirators Ric Salinas and Richard Montoya, has starred in a dozen original Culture Clash productions, authored two books of plays, and even landed a maverick sketch comedy spot on Fox TV in the early '90s. The Culture Clash guys are goofy and well read--their shows are part vaudeville, part Shakespeare. They've digested the manifestos and the diatribes, so what comes out onstage is a kind of humor that rewards you for your convictions but also disarms you of your humorless approach to them. Theirs is a stealth approach to activism.

"A clown has always had a function in history. You don't take what he does as seriously because he's a clown, but he might be saying some

real truths that hurt. We're clowning, but we're saying something that's very real," Siguenza says.

As a result, their alternative takes on American history reach national audiences at venues ranging from the Berkeley Repertory to the Lincoln Center, and their staying power as a theater collective is unparalleled. The Culture Clash players are affectionately irreverent curators of Chicano-Latino iconography; they're cultural contortionists who deliver insider satire on ethnic American subgroups--Miami retirees, the free trade bohemians, Vietnamese low-riders, and Dade County inmates. "We'll write a joke knowing that Latinos will laugh at this one, but then we'll write jokes that only Anglos will laugh at and Latinos have no clue what we're talking about--like a Spalding Gray reference or something."

The early Culture Clash plays patched together a series of fast-paced, loosely connected sketches. Over the years, however, the Culture Clash formula has become increasingly sophisticated. Their last several productions are docu-comedies that center on a geographic hub--Miami, the U.S.-Mexico border, Washington, D.C.--and the disparate perspectives of its local inhabitants. Before they sit down to write these site-based plays, Siguenza, Salinas, and Montoya interview a variety of people around town, and then play back onstage--verbatim, we presume--the best bits they've discovered. It's Anna Deveare Smith drama with plenty of leeway for the inherent humor in the real characters they've met.

For example, "In Radio Mambo, this Miami Cuban woman says to her husband, 'Let's stop talking about Fidel.' You know? And then they go silent. Because even though the right-wing Cubans hate Fidel, they can't stop talking about him. They're obsessed with him. I think deep down they admire him."

Dodging Nothing

Like the border region and south Florida, the latest spot the group is exploring onstage has a deep-seated history of racial and socio-economic conflict. Their latest work, Chavez Ravine, explores the history of the land where L.A.'s Dodger Stadium now stands. Before full-house audiences every night at the Mark Taper Forum, the Culture Clash ensemble time-hops between 1980s and the 1840s stopping off with Abbot and Costello, J. Edgar Hoover, Pete Seeger, and many others along the way. Once a thriving, semi-rural Chicano neighborhood, Chavez Ravine gets approved for public housing development, the government pursues "eminent domain" buyouts, the McCarthy era derails the key developer, and the Brooklyn Dodgers owner handpicks the site for his new stadium.

The stage play does not paint history in two dimensions: Culture Clash cannot be accused of anti-baseballism. Although we learn some of the dark secrets buried beneath it, the Dodger Stadium we see is also cherished by hometown Chicano fans. As the play opens, we're at the stadium in 1981, and Siguenza takes the mound as legendary rookie Fernando Valenzuela--complete with slack posture, the paunchy belly, and a black bowl-cut wig. Announcer Vin Scully (Montoya) makes some culturally indelicate remarks when he sees Valenzuela gazing off into the distance. We see, though Scully cannot, that Valenzuela's distracted by a vision from center field: a clean-cut 1940s Chicano duo who've come to school him on the history of the land where he's making history.

Siguenza clowns around in this opening role (he plays about a dozen other characters in the show), but he clearly has great reverence for Valenzuela as well. "We've always made fun of Fernando. What's great about Fernando is that he's not your typical all-American pitcher. He wasn't the blue-eyed, six-foot icon that we have in our head. He was a pudgy little Mexican. He looked like one of us, like a guy you'd see in East L.A. This is an Indian guy. He wasn't even mexicano. He lived on a reservation, in fact, between Sonora and Texas. He really broke the model. He was a tremendous player. And he had the mullet." Siguenza says he's out to get a laugh, but in the final moments of the show (we won't ruin it) Fernando gets his comeuppance. In the interim, we get a thorough, but not-in-the-least-dry, trip through the back roads of L.A. history.

Radical Beginnings

Siguenza is stocky with sleepy eyes and a shaved head--making it especially easy to switch wigs offstage. He's a graphic artist and, though he's loathe to admit it, a poet. As an actor, Siguenza has great range. He can pull off an icy, all-knowing stare or a benevolent maternal sweetness. Of the three players, he comes off as the parental one and the most classically trained. He's portrayed a Haitian family man, an Austrian architect, a cholo poet---even Julio Iglesias. Last year Siguenza starred in a one-man play he wrote about the late Mexican comedian Cantinflas, a latter-day combination of Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx who was a master of social commentary and poking fun at the rich and oblivious.

Though he's donning Dodger Blue these days, Siguenza is a self-proclaimed Giants fan who grew up in San Francisco's Mission District. Fellow Clasher Richard Montoya grew up around Teatro Campesino and great Chicano poets (like his father Jose Montoya). Ric Salinas and Siguenza also became politicized early in their youth.

When Siguenza was 10, his father took him to visit family in El Salvador. "That's when I really started seeing the big difference between classes. As a kid, I didn't think that was fair, I knew there was something wrong. When the civil war happened there, it was obvious why. People were just tired of being oppressed and poor. They wanted a piece of the pie, too." Siguenza later traveled to Cuba in 1981: "That was when Cuba was still Cuba, when it was still under Russian rule. It was still very communistic and I was into that. I was a young socialist."

Now, he says, "I don't consider myself a socialist or communist anymore. I consider myself someone searching for the truth--and I just know what's wrong and what's right."

Top-Rated Traitor

Like many progressive artists, Culture Clash is battling a high tide of conservatism. In the '50s, artists fought McCarthyism; today's Ashcroftianism has a similar feel. "We're living in really, really bizarre times. The way you look, the things you read, the sites that you log on--all these things are becoming scrutinized and looked upon. The whole fact that if you disagree with the Bush administration you're suddenly not a patriot. These are very dangerous concepts."

All the same, Siguenza laughs when he considers how the targeting has impacted the trio personally. "There's a site called and we're listed as one of the top 50 traitors. We're kind of proud of that."

In its body of work, no one is too sacred for the premier Chicano/Latino troupe to skewer. However, there is one topic they won't be going near anytime soon: "We can't talk about people's mothers. We learned the hard way. One time we made a joke about Luis Valdez's mother. He got so mad at us--and he was right. You can't go there. People are sensitive about their moms."

Gabrielle Banks is ColorLines' senior writer.
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Title Annotation:protest & art
Author:Banks, Gabrielle
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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