Clowns for the Millennium

The foreign policy of Culture Clash is as well-developed as Berkeley's own

The idea that most cultures have clowns of one kind or another emerged from my recent interview with “nouveau circus” legend Jeff Raz. As it happens, at the time I was reading Tony Hillerman’s mystery Sacred Clowns, which hinges on a piece of highly charged political street theater in the middle of a Hopi celebration. This combination brought home for me the notion that, beyond the big shoes and rainbow wigs, clowns can serve a deep and vital purpose within their communities, mirroring back those aspects of a culture that can’t otherwise be faced squarely. Some clowns have a huge responsibility — they keep their people honest even as they tumble and dance. As John (Fire) Lame Deer writes in Lame Deer Seeker of Visions, a clown is a protective and powerful visionary who manifests the sacred.

The Lakota call their sacred clowns heyoka, the Pueblo peoples koshare. Here in California, native people call their trickster Coyote. And it looks like “Culture Clash” is the new term, whether you’re native or not. Sacred clowns for the new millennium, the Mission-bred, Los Angeles-based trio of badass Chicanos have come to the Berkeley Rep to lay it down in ninety minutes of old and new material that spans nearly twenty years and goes after just about everybody — surfers, Vietnam vets, transsexuals, Cuban-Americans, Haitian-Americans, Norwegian-Americans, Ugandan-Americans, lesbians, prisoners, politicians, salsa dancers, Castro, Duvalier, Dubya, you name it. Featuring nudity, drug use, strong language, simulated sex acts of all kinds, hysterical accents, and Mayor Shirley Dean’s manic laughter, god bless ’em, the three members of Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza) are fearless, and they’re working overtime to keep us honest.

Longtime Culture Clash fans will be familiar with the shape of Culture Clash in AmeriCCa, as well as with many of the sections of which it is composed. Unlike their last outing at the Rep (an adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Birds), this time CC uses their tried-and-true variety show format — songs, sketches, spoken word, video, and the occasional tableau — to communicate a tremendous volume of ideas: ideas about American foreign policy, homelessness, gender politics, class conflict, racism, homophobia, and the barely contained turmoil of so many people from so many places trying to make it in America. Physically and vocally fluid, these guys take the simply dressed stage and fill it to overflowing with memorable characters of all stripes.

For Culture Clash regulars, parts of the show are like seeing an old friend or beloved relative again — there are two of the “last of the red-hot revolutionaries” reminiscing about the good old days over Chilean wine and supercharged marijuana smoke. There’s the hilarious bit where Ric Salinas explains how to distinguish the different kinds of salsa dancers. There’s the sweet Haitian man living in Miami who bursts into unexpected rage as he exclaims that he’d take “twenty Castros over one Duvalier … every Haitian who comes to this country brings part of the problem caused by American policy” — his anger just as quickly subsiding as he sends his son off to a basketball game with a kiss. And it’s so wonderful to see Adelita (Herbert Siguenza) again, the male-to-female transsexual health educator, as she explains in the most charming way how she’s going to Colorado for a $50,000 pussy, and the audience responds with a great rustling as every single man crosses his legs at her no-nonsense description of the surgery. I’m guessing that all devotees have their favorite CC character, and Adelita is mine. From what I was hearing in the audience, much of this show’s appeal lies in the pleasure of recognition — whether the familiarity of old friends, or the truthfulness of what the performers are saying. The woman behind me was in apparent ecstasy through much of the show, saying “It’s true, it’s true!”

Appealing in their own way are the new characters such as Todd and Francis, a Norwegian-American and his Cuban-American wife, and their demolition company (“Waste goes to the Everglades,” Todd tells us. “They’re going to last forever, that’s why they’re called the EVER-glades — I got that off the Internet!”). There’s the over-the-top Jewish producer Charlie Cinnamon, whose cell phone rings “Hava Nagila” and who is delighted to learn that “Spalding Gray’s coming with a new show? A new chair, a new table?” We meet an Asian guy from San Diego who boasts of his car crew, girlfriend Miso, and best friend — “He my dog, he my nigger, but he’s not black” — totally unaware of how much black culture he’s co-opting. There’s the surprisingly poignant visit with a Vietnam vet living in Tijuana who says, “When you see someone hurting someone, you’re supposed to step in and say, you deal with me … what I see happening in America now, that’s not what I fought and almost died for … it makes me sick.” As someone raised with the idea of the Vietnam war as purely a show of American strength, I found that last a mind-blowing perspective. I had never given that much thought to what it meant to the men and women fighting in ‘Nam — of course they didn’t think they were slogging through the jungle to preserve US hegemony. The piece where a Ugandan and a Filipino are sworn in as US citizens could be developed further, although it had a good punch line.

I was a little disappointed by the Berkeley-related content of the show, mostly because I think it was oversold in the publicity material. Getting a specifically Berkeley-based piece eighty minutes into a ninety-minute show (not counting a video montage) seems a little thin. Mentioning IKEA and tossing a few sometimes-clunky Berkeley references in here and there (the revolutionary mama admitting that she “used to sleep with the Cheeseboard Collective” works a lot better than various characters admitting that they hate Berkeley) do not a major reworking make. Of course, the piece they do give us, Mayor Dean at her desk trying desperately to make the audience take Berkeley seriously as various wacky-yet-typical characters float through, is very funny. But audiences hoping for a show more about Berkeley — “The only city in the country with its own foreign policy” — are bound to be disappointed if they’re not also interested in Old Home Week with Adelita, the stoned surfers, and so on. I also thought the ending was not as strong as those of CC shows I’d seen before — the mysterious, mystic poet living in People’s Park didn’t hit me as strongly as, say, CC’s show-closing tribute to Cesar Chavez at the Yerba Buena Center a year or so back, but that was a stunner. What is clear is that while the men of CC still operate proudly from their Chicano/Latino background, they take their responsibility as sacred clowns for all people very seriously, rarely missing a beat in their educational antics.

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