Radical Chicano

Two weeks in this town convinced L.A. comedy group Culture Clash that Miami needs a "mango colonic." They're right.

On a hot afternoon this past January, Herbert Siguenza, Richard Montoya, and Ric Salinas were driving south on I-95 in a white Alamo rent-a-car, looking for a dead cat.

For the members of the Los Angeles-based comedy theater troupe Culture Clash, on a two-week visit to Miami to acquire firsthand inspiration for a performance work-in-progress, this particular roadkill specimen marked the way back to Miami Beach at the end of each day of interviews with local movers and shakers. Salinas, sporting a Culture Clash baseball cap and watch, was at the wheel. Siguenza rode shotgun, the five-o'clock shadow on his shaved scalp sweating under the midday sun. He held his stomach and complained that the massive doses of eclectic ethnic cuisine offered by their many hosts had added unneeded bulk to his stocky frame. In back, Montoya passed a hand through his silky long dark hair and looked impatient. The reigning dress was Chicano homeboy: baggy pants, denim engineer jackets, flannel shirts with Aztec patterns, and work boots.

"We're going to give Miami an enema," announced Montoya. "What this town needs is a colonic. Yeah, a mango colonic."

Culture Clash was cruising far from the group's home turf, territory usually staked by low-riding cholos wearing bandannas with gang colors, not yucas in Mazda Miatas toting cellular phones. Montoya, who is Mexican-American, and Siguenza and Salinas, both Salvadoran-Americans, are the most successful Chicano-Latino comedy team in the nation, an accolade that is something of a contradiction given the struggling status of Latino theater. They are also the stars of Culture Clash, a syndicated Fox Television program often described as a Hispanic In Living Color. Seen weekly in six of the top ten U.S. Latin markets, it has not been picked up by the Fox station in Miami.

Second-generation activists who are all in their early 30s, the comedians see themselves as role models for young Latinos, particularly Mexican Americans. They aim to break down cultural stereotypes by satirizing them in slapstick sketches about border crossings and migrant workers, turf wars and riots, presenting life from the point of view of valet parkers, gang members, and the occasional Latin American dictator. Influenced by the collective structure of Latin American theater groups, as well as by political comedy from what they call California's "burrito belt," Culture Clash's postmodern vaudeville targets a multiethnic audience weaned on Saturday Night Live sketches in bilingual homes.

Culture Clash Does Miami will be staged as a work-in-progress this Sunday (May 1) at the 10th Street Auditorium in Miami Beach. The full-length piece, commissioned by the Miami Light Project at a cost of $83,000, is scheduled for a November premiere at the Colony Theater. With funding from Rockefeller and Knight Foundation grants, Miami Light's board of directors A a committee of nineteen that includes local architects, real estate agents, business owners, and arts professionals A chose the L.A. trio to create a theatrical work about Miami on the strength of a well-received performance of the group's show, A Bowl of Beings, at the Colony in 1992.

The members of Culture Clash are most of all phenomenal mimics and they will use that talent to bring to the stage the voices of the Miami residents they have encountered. They've used a similar format in other works, such as Carpa Clash, which they performed at the Mark Taper Forum theater at the Los Angeles Music Center last year. Starting with the death of activist Cesar Chavez, the group flashed back through the history of labor in Los Angeles, marked by the Zoot Suit Riots, the founding of the United Farm Workers Union, and movie studio politics, all told comedically through the words of the participants. This testimonial style, a classical theater form, is a staple of politically committed performance artists, including Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian, Guillermo G centsmez-Pe*a, and most recently, Ann Deavere Smith, who plays more than 40 characters in Twilight, Los Angeles, her critically acclaimed performance about the L.A. riots, which Culture Clash is using as a model for their Miami project.

This is the first time, though, that the Los Angeles trio has worked with such foreign subject matter. Ergo the Miami crash course: two weeks in January, followed by two weeks in May after the preview reading.

"This is a way of integrating culture into the political and social life of the city," Miami Light co-director Caren Rabbino says of the commissioned work. "It will do something for Miami which hasn't been done, which is to chronicle the lives of the people here. Certainly the tourism spin doctors have not chronicled the people of the city. I can't think of a city more interesting to make a work about. The stories told here will have resonance across the country -- if not now, over the next decade."

The producers briefly considered commissioning local performers, Rabbino says, but decided to go with a respected outside group, feeling it would bring a fresh vision of Miami to the stage, and a professionalism that might set an example for Dade County artists.

Rabbino and her partner Janine Gross envisioned a full schedule of daily activities for Culture Clash's short residencies, through which they would visit virtually every community of Greater Miami, with local artists, business executives, political activists, teachers, contractors, and clergymen, among others, as their guides. As it turned out, of the dozens of letters Miami Light sent to solicit participation, a remarkably large number of those who responded were Haitian. ("Haitians are more culturally sensitive," Rabbino concludes.) Thus, during their first two-week stay, Culture Clash had comparatively few appointments with Cuban Americans, though that sector might seem the most natural sources for a group known for its grasp of Latino culture. Still, in the course of their January visit, the performers managed to become obsessed with the drastic contrast between the culture and concerns of privileged Cuban political exiles and that of California's illegal Mexican immigrants. This, they stressed, is something they would be looking to examine more closely upon their return.

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