When the Culture Clash trio of Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenzea takes to the stage, they portray snapshots of America. There’s no moralizing and no greater point; we are left to reassemble these snapshots at will and create meaning for ourselves. In this regard, Culture Clash in AmeriCCa represents a stylistic mastery of the docu-drama form.
The dynamic threesome captures years of interviews with ethnically diverse communities from Miami and San Francisco to the U.S.-Mexican border and the nation’s capital — a buffet of geographic regions so multicultural that Yale Undergraduate Admissions would be drooling to tap into them. What renders this particular performance of Culture Clash so unique is that the group has specifically incorporated New Haven personalities into their show.
Multiple characters are so flawlessly portrayed by Montoya, Salinas and Siguenza that even when portraying actors of different races, one completely forgets the fact that encountering them on the street, they would have been immediately classified as “Hispanic” or “Latino.” They live wholly and completely in the moment and not as actors portraying an Arab cabdriver or an Asian gangsta or even a white lesbian. All this is done with a few simple costume pieces and perhaps a wig or hat or two. Racial lines are blurred, crossed and deconstructed with this postmodern theater trick.
Don’t be turned away thinking that the show is just a glorified version of an Ethnicity, Race & Migration lecture; Culture Clash doesn’t adhere to blandly politically correct representations of race and class. The actors gently skewer their snapshots with just the right amount of satire and a heavy helping of humor. One laughs initially out of surprised shock, thinking, “Did they actually just say that?” and then laughs a second time, realizing just how preconceptions and stereotypes have been brought out to air.
The show opens with a booming rap song, and the three actors emerge onstage, backlit with a brilliant blue light, and completely oozing with ‘tude. After a brief tribute to Pinero’s poet father Miguel and other Hispanic playwrights and poets (a sort of invocation of the gods) the threesome lapse immediately into a series of rapid-fire tableaux that show images of “ghetto” life, ranging from the humorous to the violent to the pathetic. The speed with which the actors transition from tableau to tableau is both admirable and effective in that the audience is not given the chance to analyze or critique, but simply swallow whole.
Some of Culture Clash’s best scenes are ones in which one or two members of the group actually play themselves in the process of interviewing people. The device underscores the fact that these are actual people and actual stories that Culture Clash is representing — and not merely “types” or purely fictionalized characters. It also makes the audience feel just one step away from these people represented on stage — much like “The Laramie Project’s” theater device.
One of the funniest scenes takes place in a Miami living room, in which Sigueza plays white working-class Todd and Salinas perfectly portrays Francis, a Cuban-American woman, down to the last giggle. The scene brings to light the ways in which mixed families deal with diverging cultural needs and sexual stereotypes. For example, Francis feels the need to call her mother every few hours because within her culture, family plays a key role. Similarly, Todd waxes poetic (as much as a Homer Simpson-esque man can wax) about Francis’ voluptuous Cuban ass. “She’s got the BAM!” he cries out, making an obscene gripping gesture. All the while, Montoya (playing himself) is hilariously both struggling to record the situation and to deal with the awkwardness of the gesture.
This microcosm, while entertaining, was a bit representative of the play as a whole. It was brilliantly performed but tended to ramble. Some of the pieces, like a scene within the Miami Day jail done in a spoken-word style, are jaw-droppingly evocative and moving. Others, like a scene in San Francisco involving a pre-op male-to-female transvestite, seem to work too hard for laughs and one wonders what exactly is the point.
Some of the most evocative moments came near the end of the show, when the actors portrayed New Haven personalities. The audience is exposed to ethnic communities outside of Yale’s gothic walls. As for the more familiar Yale campus personalities, such as a reference to “Sweet Annette, the flower woman” whose words, carnations and smiling face “brightened everyone’s day,” I got a sense of excitement, feeling as if I experiencing and participating in part of this community, a piece of the America that they were portraying.
The set itself is minimalist. Large crumpled pieces of paper serve as backdrops and are sidelit to reveal texture that does not distract. When the pieces are lit from the front and reassembled, a map of the United States is revealed. At the end of the show, the pieces are again reassembled and relit to reveal a huge American flag. While ending a show of this nature with an American flag as a backdrop might seem cheesy in most other contexts, for some reason, it was perfectly fitting in this show. The show itself might seem like nothing more than a plotless crumpled piece of paper to some. Others might find it to be an accurate, detailed “road map” of the nation. It’s only when you look at everything in another light, rearrange the stars and the stripes and the snapshots and the words, that you can create the American flag.
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