(Still) in America
Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza, and Ricardo Salinas. Photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

(Still) in America

Culture Clash

Berkeley Rep
Director: Lisa Peterson
Writers: Richard Montoya, Ricardo Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza
Feb. 20-Apr. 5, 2020
Reviewed Feb. 27, 2020

Culture Clash’s “(Still) in America” is written and performed by Richard Montoya, Ricardo Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza. It features comedic sketches meant to satirize culture in the Americas.  The LA-based trio first appeared at Berkeley Rep in 2002 with “Culture Clash in Americca.”  The following is a post-performance, edited discussion between Toba Singer and James Gotesky, otherwise known as Singer & Son.   

James: You don’t seem enthusiastic about the performance?  The audience clearly was.  Plenty of laughter and stand-up applause.  What did you think of the humor?

Toba: I was not amused by the performance.  The humor is self-deprecating and vindictive. Its message is that the leopard can’t change its spots, culturally speaking. As for the audience reaction, Culture Clash seemed to get the audience they aimed for, Caucasian, elite, and more than a little masochistic, because the audience has to play the role of the woke characters’ clueless antagonist.  Its composition was not a close enough fit to qualify for the writers’ “white privilege” cohort, cynically and misogynistically trolled out by the all-male trio, often via travestie. I wonder how the accusing tone fell on the ears of not only Caucasian audience members, but those who are Latino, Black, and Asian?

James: “Trolled out.” What do you mean by that?

Toba: The sketches tend to pander to the false idea circulating in the liberal media, that working people are ignorant and politically backward. They take up race, nationality, “gender,” and nested sub-taxonomies within those categories. The opening sketch features a Mexican border crosser whose child has been snatched from him and two Caucasian ICE agents who interrogate him. The border crosser’s humor flips from wide-eyed to self-mocking. He ingratiates himself while he at the same time puts words in the mouths of the ICE agents that recapitulate his own prejudices. The script deliberately sows the confusion that ICE agents are working class, glossing over the reality that they are, and have always been, sworn enemies of that class, regardless of skin shade and nationality. The message?  Caucasians workers are insensate and deplorable.  To my way of thinking, this trope is neither true nor funny.

Toba: The show poses the question,  “What does it mean to be ‘American’?” What’s your take on that?

James: The dialogue presumes a false and fantastical notion of what that means, as if everyone shares Culture Clash’s preconceptions on the subject. In one scene, an immigration lawyer, overwhelmed by the human rights violations of immigrant children detained in McAllen, Texas, turns to the audience and asks, “Can we even call this America anymore?”  I don’t know an America where there has not been continuous violations of human rights, whether against Native Americans, African slaves and their descendants, or the internment of the Japanese during World War II.  So yes, we can call it America.

James:  If you sat down for a cup of coffee with the Culture Clash writers/actors ,what would you say to them?

Toba: I was struck by the absence of penetrating insight. So, I would cite some examples: the Miami Cuban couple who finish each other’s inane sentences to keep in step with the caricature of them as wannabe Caucasians. Their expression of support for George Zimmerman’s “Stand Your Ground” defense in the Trayvon Martin murder is supposed to illustrate cravenness on their part.

I’d say that Richard Pryor, with his rapier wit, did a far better version 45 years ago of the fulminating African-American preacher that they satirize. Pryor’s was funnier because he was not going for a winking audience consensus about a guy who makes a fool of himself, so much as for ripping the veil off the reactionary role the church has at times foisted on the Black Community.

Then there’s an overbearing Muslim father, a mashup of Western-imposed clichés, topped off with an obsessive concern about the terrorist “mantle” he fears may end up on his kids’ shoulders. Asians are not exempt. I’d remind them that an actor pulled his eyes slantwise to create slits. A Filipino is asked why his people are so accommodatingly patriotic towards the U.S. government. That reductive moment only betrays how little the writers know about the real history of rebellions in the Philippines against U.S. domination.

Toba: Since the writers are all men, do you think anything in the script would change if one of them had been a woman?

James: I’m not sure what would change. Maybe the sketch where the transgender Cuban goes on in detail about the two different types of fake female genitalia available for purchase in Tijuana or Colorado, would have been cut, or maybe a woman writer’s perspective might have changed the content and structure of the sketch.  

James: If this show were on Netflix, would you recommend it to friends?

Toba: I would instead encourage friends to watch Ricky Gervais’ “Humanity.” Even with Gervais’ coarse and frequent use of the “c” word to go after what is contemptible about the contemptuous British ruling class, at least when he mocks their vanities, there’s no agnosticism; we know where he stands. He despises them. There’s no seat at their table for a guy like him and he knows it! He wants no part of them or their seats, and couldn’t care less about their “microaggressions.”  He locates a corresponding enmity in his audience, no matter race, class, or creed. Culture Clash’s humor climbs on the back of social divisions, sown centuries ago by those in power, even as it invokes the name of Che Guevara and shouts slogans that originated with the Cuban Revolution.  You want to shout back, “How dare you!”

Toba: OK, I’ve had my cup of coffee with the writers.  How about you?  What would you discuss?

James: Since their humor targets stereotypes, I would refer them to Don Rickles. Rickles’ mastery of self-deprecation gives him carte blanche to make fun of everyone in the room!  Culture Clash satirizes in a snide way, ultimately diminishing its sketches. 

Toba:To me, that Don Rickles is better at this brand of humor offers cold comfort. My preference is for humor that shows an audience its self-worth, even by ridiculing the pickles we get ourselves into when we take a wrong turn. Rickles thrived on the opposite—demeaning the audience, albeit in an “equal opportunity” manner.

James:  Can you imagine this play on Broadway?

Toba: Berkeley Rep has said that it brings productions like Culture Clash to the stage to make Caucasians feel uncomfortable. If discomfort is the goal, wouldn’t it then make sense to sell the majority of its seats to those Caucasians most likely to feel uncomfortable, the most elite? That would mean fewer tickets for working stiffs. That’s what makes me uncomfortable! Also discomfiting is that the same repertory company that mounted “Les Despereaux” and “Paradise Square”(both Broadway-quality shows), which educated audiences to the sensibilities of little-known historical themes, could then turn around and settle for the low-hanging fruit you mention, the pandering, bargain-basement humor churned out by Culture Clash.

Toba: You mentioned that the play made you feel uncomfortable.

James: Yes, very much so.  The smug, yet narrow political angle the writers took felt like going to the orthodontist to have my braces removed without any of the pleasure that ensued.  It is 95 minutes of the same punchline, rehashed in suspect dialects.

James: What play or movie would Culture Clash most resemble?

Toba: I’m tempted to say, “Cabaret,” starring the brilliant  Joel Grey as the sinister Master of Ceremonies who uses antisemitism and misogyny to pry open existing social scabs and scars among German Kit-Kat Klub-goers. He does this at the very moment that Germany desperately needs the exact opposite: solidarity in the face of a gathering storm of reaction.  The difference between Joel Grey’s routines and Culture Clash? Grey’s humor was free of any pretense that it served the side of the angels.

Singer & Son, Toba Singer, James Gotesky

San Francisco ,
Singer & Son James Gotesky and Toba Singer announce the launching of Singer & Son, a joint arts writing venture. “Singer & Son” looks forward to covering arts events in the San Francisco Bay Area and arts venues around the globe. Using a “Siskel & Ebert” format, each writer will share his or her appreciation of a performance or event. Singer & Son will also conduct interviews and co-author feature articles. Toba Singer author of “First Position: a century of ballet artists” (Praeger, 2007) and “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida, 2013), was nominated for the LASA (Latin American Student Association) Award, the de la Torre Research and Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award. She has been Artist in Residence at Santa Fe College, and was the University of Florida Author Representative to the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. James Gotesky danced with Boston Ballet II, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and was a Soloist with Houston Ballet. He writes for The Advance, an online music magazine, and has taught at Houston Ballet Academy and Conservatorio de Danza de Mexico. In 2010 he was named Eligible Bachelor No. 13 in Forbes.com 100 Most Eligible Bachelors In the U.S. For more information: singerampersandson@gmail.com