‘Clash’-ing Lights and Civil Rights: Culture Clash ‘(Still) in America’ World Premiere at Berkeley Rep

“It is very much like Chicano art. It is sophisticated and primitive simultaneously. The scenes would play out and … the comedy would be absorbed rather than having it jammed down [your throat].”
– Cheech Marin, interviewed by NPR (13 March 2017)

I keep going back to that quote. I can’t find who said it, but it becomes truer with each passing day: “To the oppressor, there’s no such thing as a ‘peaceful protest’.” The oppressors will strike out indiscriminately at those who voice contrary opinions; the oppressors will do all they can to beat them into submission. All the oppressed need to is speak out against the oppression and they’ll be classified as violent lunatics. “What do they expect?”, supporters of the oppressors ask. “If they really wanted things done, they’d go about it peacefully!”

An ICE detainee (Richard Montoya, center) didn’t expect his “interrogation” to go like this (with Ricardo Salinas and Herbert Siguenza). (Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep)

Yet, whenever the oppressed choose non-violent means of getting their point across – be they MLK marching or Colin Kaepernick taking a knee – they’re seen as the most radical of all. They haven’t hurt anyone, suggested anyone be hurt, or done anything that would warrant violent retaliation. All they do is speak out against wrongdoing in the world. That’s all it takes.

Culture Clash – the Latino trio of Richard Montoya, Ricardo Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza – have spent nearly 40 years delivering otherwise peaceful protests to the world via the stage. Although they inject a healthy dose of comedy into their delivery, they don’t hold back on the most scathing details of the people they encounter. Be they a father who had his child snatched away from him by ICE agents or a Trans woman describing her pending reassignment surgery in very graphic detail. Like Sesame Street, the trio are introducing you to the people in your neighborhood/city/country/world.

And who are those people? Well, they’re an interracial Florida couple (Cuban wife, White husband) who are of blue-collar means but red-state politics. They’re two immigrants (a Nigerian man and a Pinoy man) anxiously waiting to be sworn in as US citizens. They’re two old White women who were “bleeding-heart liberals” before any Social Justice Warrior was ever born. They’re federal lawyers in Texas trying their damndest to reunite families separated by ICE agents. And they’re the aforementioned detained father and Trans woman.

A proud Nuyorican (Ricardo Salinas) explains the intricacies of different salsa dances. (Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep)

These are the people our trio interview as they travel from coast-to-coast collecting tales from the trenches of our fair nation. I haven’t seen one of the trio’s proper show, but I did catch Montoya’s Campo Santo collaboration, Nogales, at the Magic Theatre. This show is actually quite similar to that one, even featuring an interviewer doing a back-and-forth “Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter” riff with the Florida couple. Both that show and this one give a voice and platform to the people speaking, even as the show’s creators make it clear as to where their loyalties lie.

And “loyalty” may be the most appropriate word, as it seems to be the most recurring theme of the show. The aforementioned Nigerian and Pinoy man scene has the Pinoy man donning a MAGA had in an attempt to show his loyalty to his new country. A Muslim man describes his Muslim-American children as if they served two masters: “They worship Allah and Nike”. A proud Nuyorican man (hilariously) explains how to differentiate between Latinx cultures by observing the way they salsa-dance. And, of course, those crossing the border have their loyalty questioned every waking hour. The best way to find an enemy is to simply look for one.

A proud Muslim man (Richard Montoya) contemplates an unlikely “safe space” in the US. (Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep)

Fortunately for us, the members of Culture Clash are more interested in finding the humanity of their subjects, even the ones with whom they don’t agree. The Florida couple are a bit grating, but their devotion to one another is sincere. Two old ex-hippie women are far too caught up in their ways to understand Millennials, but they certainly believed they wanted to make a difference in the world when they had the chance.

The trio are attempting to meet people halfway in the hopes of answering the great divide that ideologically separates so many US citizens today. Whether or not their message will go beyond preaching to the converted is another matter, but the message itself is a worthy one.

And it comes in quite a nice package. Director Lisa Peterson keeps the action easy to follow, even at its most outrageous moments on Christopher Acebo’s stage. Upon entering the Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, one is immediately struck by the upstage wall’s redesign as an altered US flag, the normal red and white stripes replaced with a kaleidoscope that runs the full spectrum. Cutouts of stars hang from the flanks of the stage, with another above the stage proper, and one more above the audience. With the addition of Tom Ontiveros’ lights and projections, the set takes on a life of its own – and that’s before its walls open and close.

Carolyn Mazuca’s costumes run the gamut from basic blacks to prison oranges to dashikis, kufis, and dollar-store robes. Very few of these characters have money to spend on flashy wardrobes (save for a Black American preacher we meet in the third segment). But Mazuca’s threads give each of them a distinctive look the same way Peterson’s direction and the trio’s performances give them individual personalites.

A Pinoy man (Ricardo Salinas) and a Nigerian (Herbert Siguenza) get acquainted before being sworn in as US citizens. (Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep)

Though not a perfect show (some sequences go on too long and “sketch comedy” format of the show begins to wear thin), Culture Clash’s (Still) in America is an honorable attempt to give a face and voice to the very people who feel denied those things by the current administration. It’s a celebration of uniqueness that doesn’t have to put a point on the similarities. As we find ourselves in yet another divisive election year, it’s sad to think that those similarities may be the first thing everyone forgets.

GRADE:                                                            B+

Culture Clash (Still) in America is scheduled to run until the 5th of April on the Peet’s Theatre stage of the Berkeley Rep.
The show runs roughly 90 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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