KPBS AIRDATE: JUNE 3, 1998
In one particularly inspired scene in “Culture Clash in Bordertown,” a woman enters dressed in nightclothes, lies down and covers herself with the Mexican flag. A pajama-clad, blonde-haired man sprawls out a little distance away, under an American flag. Soon, he gets up, strides over to the woman, and screws her brains out. ‘Why are you so abusive?’ she asks him plaintively. “I love her and I need her,” he confesses to the audience. “But I’m embarrassed of her.” And she confides in us: “There’s a lie between us. I’m only submissive when I’m with him. Our marriage is political.”
And that about says it all, especially about the first act of the Chicano comedy troupe’s latest play, “Culture Clash in Bordertown.” Based on 100 interviews of local residents, the piece is darkly funny, deeply political, and even a bit disturbing.
The thematic thread that runs through the series of vignettes is that La Frontera may be the most heavily armed border in our region, but it’s by no means the only one. There are borders between sexes, races, neighbors. Barriers everywhere — except in the minds of the wacko cultic Unarius Society, who believe that “there are no borders in the cosmos,” and when they shed their containers and take off for a higher plane, there will be no boundaries at all. Nice thought, but it’s used to tie the whole show together, and the conceit really doesn’t work. The parenthetical, but much more interesting through-line is the notion of bridges, from the Barrio Logan murals beneath the Coronado Bridge, to the way the doorways and lighting transform the simple, tricolor set into the pylons of that span, to one character’s realization that each of us is the ultimate cultural bridge. But instead of using this to full advantage, “Bordertown” ends toothlessly, with a goofy, hokey, Plan 9 Coronado spaceship. The Clash-men joke that they couldn’t find a good way to finish the play, and they were right.
But they have painted a multicolored portrait of America’s Finest City, in all its diversity, rife with politicos and surfer-dudes, Hillcrest huggers and low-rider homeboys, maligned immigrants of all stripes and colors, La Jolla matrons, Asian gang-members and the multiculti mix of City Heights, ‘the Ellis Island of the nineties.’ They’re all here, some in funny bits, some in poignant or disquieting ones. But it’s all intensely personal. No one outside the county, it seems, would get or appreciate this show. It’s our own private family photo album — closed eyes, shadows, warts and all.
The second act becomes much more funny and antic, but the dark, edgy veil of the first act never fully lifts. We see border crossings, from both sides, replete with a racist, Rambo-like vigilante, and we get a retelling of local history, reminiscent of Culture Clash’s earlier humorous/historical treatise, “The Mission,” with its paternalistic padres beating innocent Indios. The boys are at their best as surfers, sailors and New Americans, but they camp-up a broad spectrum of women and men, alien-lovers and dogs. Sam Woodhouse has directed with just the right touch of physical comedy and frenetic energy, highlighting the versatility and linguistic agility of the zany triumvirate: Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza.
One of the show’s most potent moments is the spotlighted poetry reading by the group’s chief ruminator, the lyrical Montoya, a San Diego native whose father is also a poet. In a few flowing, imagistic lines, Montoya captures the confused identity of our region, reiterating what the trio has conveyed repeatedly during the evening. The piece could surely be trimmed a bit, but for what future use? I can’t see it traveling, like their “Radio Mambo: Culture Clash Invades Miami,” which gave us a glimpse of South Florida’s cultural identity crisis. The San Diego Rep commissioned this as a local work, and that it is: a fun-house mirror held up just to us, tinged with acid-laced laughs. Though heavy-handed at times, there is a message: unite the two border-straddling cities, or San Diego will “continue to gyrate in its own ghosts.” This isn’t just a comedy; it’s a cautionary tale.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.