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Politically Incorrect 

Culture Clash makes fun of everyone equally -- and well

Wednesday, Feb 20 2002
Racial humor is thriving in Berkeley, and Culture Clash has committed the unpardonable sin of making it funny. "The way you tell a Latino apart from another Latino is by the way they salsa," one of the company's routines begins, and it goes on to make gentle fun of Mexicans, Central Americans, Cubans, African-Americans, and white people. No white comedians could get away with this material now, but Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza make the balding old pastures of Don Rickles and Rodney Dangerfield feel fresh again.

They do it with solid acting and a strong dose of politics. Culture Clash started as a "revolutionary comedy" troupe 18 years ago in the Mission; since then it has moved to Los Angeles to pitch its wares to Hollywood. (Fox let the team produce a season's worth of Latino sketch comedy for a TV show called Culture Clash several years ago.) But the group's politics are as strident as ever. "We don't feel a need to "transcend' our ethnicity in order to reach a place of higher art!" read the notes to the current show -- and, of course, neither did Rickles or Dangerfield. Who needs transcendence for sketch comedy?

The impressive thing about Culture Clash is how quickly its members skip from one culture to another. First Montoya plays an Asian car thief talking about his girlfriend "Miso" and the three pagers on his low-slung belt ("Third pager goin' off, blowin' up like a muthafucker"). Then Siguenza and Salinas play a pair of lesbians from San Diego, in a sketch that starts with three evocative words: "Warm soy milk." Then Montoya plays an ex-Marine who lives in Tijuana because rents in San Diego are too high. "Forget about color for just a minute," he says. "I'm tryin' to forget right now, that's why I'm drinkin' so much." He wears a cowboy hat, swills Budweiser, and listens to Dylan. Culture Clash keeps itself vital by spinning vivid characters from recorded interviews; and like every excursion in documentary theater, from The Vagina Monologues to The Laramie Project, the closer Culture Clash in AmeriCCa sticks to the interviews, the better.

A skit about three stoned white surfers in San Diego is not well played -- dumb surfers are easy targets, and the group exaggerates their mannerisms embarrassingly -- and a long, stoned conversation between two aging hippie women in Berkeley is crowd-pleasing but trite. The problem with politics in theater, or in any art, is not that art is too rarefied or pure for politics; the problem is that politics can so easily become a glib sort of self-consciousness, a way of saying, "I think these people are lame. I'm not like them at all" (the surfers) or, "Check it out! I'm on your side" (the hippie women). When Culture Clash wanders too far from its interview material, it falls back on political cliché, and the skits get boring.

The best skit of the evening may be Montoya's turn as Charlie Cinnamon, a New York Jew transplanted to Miami, who wears a loud shirt and thick glasses. Charlie's a Miami Beach theater publicist with an opinion on every aspect of life in Florida and the wider United States. The skit shows Salinas and Siguenza recording him with a movie camera. He explains that his last name is an Ellis Island mutation -- his uncle came out "Timmerman" -- and although he bitterly remembers "Gentiles Only" signs in Miami Beach, he harbors his own share of prejudice against Cubans. ("Uptight," he calls them. "Very tightly wound.") The skit does more than simply criticize an old-fashioned Miami Jew; it gives us a rounded, vivid character, stirred up by his own pungent opinions. "Do I like L.A.?" Cinnamon roars. "Is this on?" He peers into the camera. "FUCK L.A.! Bunch'a Froot Loops out there! Only place I hate worse than L.A.? [pause] Berkeley!" It turns out that the members of Culture Clash do their best work by carefully inhabiting the rhythms and mannerisms of people not like them -- that is, by transcending ethnicity.

Culture Clash in AmeriCCa is a jumble of old and new material that reflects on current life in the U.S. Most of it seems to have been written before Sept. 11, but a few touches bring things up to date, like an Osama bin Laden T-shirt and a massive, ghostly American flag in tones of brown (designed by Alexander Nichols), which lets the audience meditate on the meaning of patriotism. Montoya, Salinas, and Siguenza would like to be the Marx Brothers of the Latino left, and in their best routines they can remind an audience of that old American vitality, which comes from sloughing off shyness over what can and can't be said.


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