Archive for Sunday, October 4, 1992

CULTURE CLASH STICKS TOGETHER

October 4, 1992

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Richard Montoya sees Columbus' arrival in North America two ways: It gave opportunity to his Spanish ancestors but destroyed the civilization of his Native American ancestors.

He also see it as an offer the inhabitants couldn't refuse.

"We turn Columbus into the Godfather,'' said Montoya, who is one of three members of Culture Clash, the first group to perform in the 1992-93 Kansas University New Directions Series. "We give him two bumbling sons, and we update the story as if it were a (Francis Ford) Coppola movie. . . . The story presents a challenge to us because of the dichotomy of our Chicano heritage, and that's what Culture Clash is all about.''

Montoya joins Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza in Culture Clash, which is scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. Thursday at Liberty Hall, 642 Mass. The show opens a multicultural season for the New Directions Series that focuses on the quincentennial of Columbus' arrival in the Americas.

THE GROUP will perform "A Bowl of Beings'' a 1990 revue-style performance piece based on the theme of Chicano identity: Its subtitle is "A revolutionary comedy about life, death and pizza.''

The show, directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela, uses music, sketches and adult language to examine political and social issues in an irreverant atmosphere much in the tradition of Italian Commedia Dell'Arte or the political sketches that once dotted the cultural landscape of pre-revolutionary Mexico.

"At the turn of the century there were little theaters along the border that were outlets for political expression,'' Montoya said in a Wednesday telephone interview from the Culture Clash office in Los Angeles. "They were very raunchy. So we're in that tradition of political comedy and vaudeville.''

MONTOYA GREW up in the San Francisco area in what he calls a middle-class Chicano family. His first exposures to theater came from political meetings his parents attended during the 1960s, when Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers tried to organize migrant farm employees.

"Every year we'd meet in Delano (Calif.), and we'd see the El Teatro Campesino theater company that was headed by Luiz Valdez, who did `Zoot Suit' and `Stand By Me.' '' he said. "They would be doing these wild comedy sketches that were at the same time very political.

"So those were my roots. As a child I saw theater that expressed outrage and political ideas and was funny at the same time.''

HE WENT on to train as an actor at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francsico and with the El Teatro Campesino another clash of cultures. It seems ACT trained him to be Laurence Olivier, but El Teatro trained him to be himself.

"The Teatro was really based on Commedia Dell'Arte,'' he said. "We'd break the fourth wall all the time, it had a real European feeling to it. It was very physical. The ACT was very classical and serious, thought before movement and Shakespeare-oriented. The audience never played a role.''

Then in May 1984, Montoya and his two cohorts came together on what was supposed to be a one-night performance. It turned into a career.

"We were putting together this performance for a curator in San Francisco, it was in an art gallery of all places,'' he said. "Actually we were looking for something different to do for the Cinco de Mayo festival, and we came up with the vaudeville format. So we started basically as a one-night stand in 1984 and we've been together ever since.''

THE GROUP that sprang out of that performance, Comedy Fiesta, later got whittled down to Montoya, Salinas and Siguenza. They created three performance pieces: the 1988 "The Mission,'' which a was semi-autobiographical look at the struggle of three Chicano actors; "Beings''; and "SOS,'' their latest, which is still a work in progress.

"Beings'' has undergone changes since its 1990 premiere. For one thing, Salinas nearly died in a shooting that year, and he included a monologue about the event. That monologue has since evolved, but the shooting left the three men reeling.

"That was really a watermark in our lives, to see a very young person be a victim of violence,'' he said. "It really kind of kicked us in the butt. It turned us back to the political ideas we had started out to express in the first place.''

THE VIOLENCE that plagued Los Angeles last April also works its way into "A Bowl of Beans'' and especially in "SOS.'' Montoya remembers standing on the roof on his Hollywood apartment and watching South Central Los Angeles and areas closer to his home catch fire.

"It was a surrealistic experience,'' he said. "I was at once frightened and disturbed by the outrage people chose to express during the rebellion, which other people call the riots. I was part of a demonstration at the Los Angeles courthouse, which was peaceful, and it was pretty multicultural. . . . But the rebellion made people look at Los Angeles as something other than the sunny paradise, that in fact LA is a very uptight, oppressed city.''

"Beings'' played the Los Angeles Theater Center and PBS' "Great Performances'' series. Their latest gigs took them into the world of film, where they had bit parts as a team in "Encino Man'' and the recently opened "Hero,'' in which they play a trio of detectives who arrests Dustin Hoffman. They also worked for a year with Cheech Marin, of Cheech and Chong fame, to develop a series for Fox television. The series didn't make it.

"IT'S ALWAYS been a struggle for people of color to get into films,'' he said. "It's especially hard when they insist you have a thick accent and pull out a switchblade, which we refuse to do. It's going to take a struggle to make Hollywood realize we're here.''

Montoya says the three performers are committed to working with each other for a long time to come. They run Culture Clash like a business, and they've turned down some individual gigs. Montoya had the opportunity to appear in Keenan Ivory Wayans' "In Living Color,'' but that would have broken up the group.

"If an opportunity won't take away from the work of the group, we'll take it,'' he said. "But otherwise we won't consider it. We're going to stay together. We don't want to break up the family.''

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