Culture Clash Makes America (Still) Great Again at Berkeley Rep

Ricardo Salinas, Richard Montoya, and Herbert Sigüenza in Culture Clash (Still) in America at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Kevin Berne)

If the phrase “documentary theater” makes you think only of earnest excavations of a historical moment performed by a solo shape-shifting storyteller, you owe it to yourself to experience the boisterous irreverence of Culture Clash.

Formed in 1984 at Galería de la Raza in San Francisco's Mission District—with early members including Marga Gomez and Monica Palacios—Culture Clash has created work as a trio since 1988. Using social satire as a frame for focusing attention on Chicano culture and the immigrant experience, Culture Clash uses laughter as a tool of subversion, giving its audiences an alternative history lesson of “America” from the point-of-view of its outsiders. Guillermo Gómez-Peña once dubbed the group “reverse anthropologists.”

Currently performing a mélange of their most seminal scenes plus some newer, timelier material at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, their familiarity with the Bay Area informs their humorous asides, including some knowing digs at Orinda, People’s Park protesters, and the Mission District-born Philz coffee.

Richard Montoya, Herbert Sigüenza, and Ricardo Salinas are here to document you in 'Culture Clash (Still) in America' at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Kevin Berne)

But Culture Clash is much more than their one-liners. For over 20 years, they’ve investigated the Chicano/Latino experience using the same rigorous documentarian approaches as theater-makers such as Anna Deavere Smith and Dan Hoyle. Criss-crossing the country, tape recorders and video cameras in hand, their interview subjects include couples in Miami Beach, new citizens at their naturalization ceremony, a hyper-active Nuyorican toting an old-school boombox, and a hopeful Middle-Eastern Uber driver observing dryly that “there is nothing in the Koran about raising an American teenager.” Occasionally, in the spirit of fun, they turn the cameras onto their audience, capturing every reaction with a cheerful thumbs up.

Ricardo Salinas as a salsa-parsing Nuyorican in 'Culture Clash (Still) in America' at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Kevin Berne)

In a staccato burst of loosely-arranged sketches, Culture Clash (Still) in America, directed by Lisa Peterson, explores its plurality of voices with good-natured portrayals. Even less sympathetic characters such as Floridian blowhard Todd (Herbert Sigüenza), whose casual racism and sexism dominates much of his discourse, seems weirdly vulnerable when confessing his emotional distance from his own family in comparison to that of his Cuban wife (Ricardo Salinas). She, in turn, belies her long-suffering subservience with smilingly delivered contradictions and a swift KO.

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Other beloved characters from older Culture Clash assemblages reemerge still glorious—such as Herbert Sigüenza’s portrayal of the charmingly candid Adelita, a trans health worker in the Mission who speaks of AIDS education, her macho boyfriend, and her own transition process. The two new citizens—Paolo and Oscar (Salinas and Sigüenza)—stick to their original script through much of the scene, but add the twist of a MAGA hat and an unexpected defense of the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte. A pair of “woke” elders smoke out (Salinas with Richard Montoya) and observe the many ways the world has changed since their “revolutionary” youth, now including an awareness of proper pronoun use.

Ricardo Salinas and Herbert Sigüenza as new citizens in 'Culture Clash (Still) in America' at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Kevin Berne)

Meanwhile, Richard Montoya skillfully portrays both sides of a less-evergreen border crossing story—as both a father whose child has been taken from him, and an overworked immigration lawyer working overtime on their reunification.

“It’s a humanitarian crisis,” he observes grimly. “Can a country that cages children...is that country still 'America?'”

In that moment there are no laughs solicited and none given. In a work of mainly comedic vignettes, it stands out as a perhaps too-brief moment of political reckoning. An amalgamation of anger at a system bent on maximizing the humiliation and horror that awaits today’s border detainees, and anguish over the helplessness of even the law to combat it. No other moment in the show comes as close to breaking through the genial cocoon of comic relief, and one wonders how its perspective-shifting impact might have been sustained more thoroughly throughout the evening.

The camaraderie and synergy displayed by the three Clasheros onstage is by far the show’s great strength. Drawing on decades of collaboration and companionship, they slip into each character’s skin as easily as a pair of familiar shoes, carrying them ever-forward through each transition and scene change. They skillfully avoid the dead time that punctuates less practiced sketch comedy, and their innate stage presence never flags, even as they shift focus from one performer to another with practiced ease like well-matched athletes.

Herbert Sigüenza as a poet of the revolution in 'Culture Clash (Still) in America' at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Kevin Berne)

With just a few props and minimal set pieces (courtesy of Christopher Acebo) and key lighting moments (Tom Ontiveros), Culture Clash creates a vivid world populated by a multiplicity of voices who often seem very different. But from the Miami-based demolition experts praying for their next hurricane to the desperate detainee on the border giving his daughter an encouraging lie, the commonality they all reveal is the necessity and importance of hope. It may be but a small comfort for some. But at least it's a comfort still available to the many.

'Culture Clash (Still) in America' runs Feb. 20-April 5 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Details here.