Terror has a human face

Culture Clash was born and bred in a thoroughly Chicano theatrical crucible, but the comedy troupe has proved over the years that its heart is not devoted specifically to Aztlan. These are American theater artists, and it's the American minority experience as a whole that their best work addresses.

It's no different with the troupe's current piece: Culture Clash in AmeriCCA, a union of previous material with new bits. People who've seen past Culture Clash efforts, particularly the Miami-centric Radio Mambo and the San Diego/Tijuana-centric Bordertown, will recognize lots of familiar faces.

But the handful of new pieces are the most exciting. They seem to reflect a darker twist on Culture Clash's already edgy vision. This troupe may be hands-down hilarious, able to salsa, boogie, dress up like big-tittied chicas and spoof everyone from stoned-out surfers to suburban lesbians, but it's also a highly politicized group that is most effective and bravest when it lowers the clown masks and reveals the fire raging within. That fire hasn't diminished, even in the post-Sept. 11 era, when anyone who doesn't bleed red, white and blue from every orifice could be suspected of treason. Whether it's a Vietnam vet in Tijuana quoting Samuel Johnson's line that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel or a Haitian immigrant coolly relating that the poison his fellow islanders bring to this country was created by America, there is plenty of anti-establishment rhetoric leaking between the high-energy comedy.

But that also doesn't mean Culture Clash in AmeriCCA is a forest fire of politics and rage. This is still commercial theater. Anyone who wants to make a living has to be embraced by Whitey on some level. So there's no shortage of raucous stereotyping, tactless humor, and goofs and gags. In fact, for my taste, there's a few too many easy laughs (like the baked-out San Diego surfers or the bigoted Miami Jew) this time around. In that respect, Culture Clash in AmeriCCAfeels like a warm-up. So much of it has been seen before that I got the feeling the troupe is easing up on the gas in preparation for a couple of shows that sound like genuine ass-kickers: Anthems, a show about Washington, D.C., that will be produced later this year; and Chavez Ravine, the troupe's first examination of Los Angeles, which will be produced at the Mark Taper Forum next year.

In the interim, we get a show that slaps and pinches but doesn't kick a whole lot of ass. The big crowd-pleaser this time around is Herbert Siguenza's dazzlingly hilarious portrayal of a former transvestite waiting for her $50,000 sex change. Siguenza nails the character's physicality and desperation perfectly, underlining a theme of this show—assimilation and its cost to all of us. The most powerful moment involves Richard Montoya's eloquent account of meeting a grief counselor in an airport on his way to Washington, D.C., a few days after Sept. 11. Montoya was on his way to D.C. to conduct interviews with residents for his troupe's next piece, but the grief counselor says he is no longer a playwright but a war correspondent. The piece ends with Montoya's realization that for the first time in his life, the face of domestic terror isn't wearing a white sheet and doesn't look like Timothy McVeigh: it's his own (Montoya is one-fourth Syrian).

Irony and dramatic juxtaposition have always set Culture Clash apart from the rest of the satirical crowd, and nowhere is that better manifested than in back-to-back sketches near the end of AmeriCCA.The first is light-hearted: a Filipino and African congratulate each other on their new citizenship. With the help of an Arab-American, they wave flags, dance and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Immediately, we hear the sound of a prison lockdown. The lights shift, the costumes are removed, and Montoya, Siguenza and Ric Salinas stand single-file in stark lighting. Now they are African-American prison inmates in D.C. They're lifers, and they know it. But they are as hungry and desperate for the good life as the previously mentioned new immigrants with dollar signs dancing in their eyes. The difference for these convicts, however, is that they know how to get it: by taking it from you and me—by any means necessary

It's a haunting reminder of the millions of disenfranchised, marginalized, criminally pissed-off Americans who will still be here long after the flags stop waving, the Apache helicopters are out of Bethlehem and presidential-approval ratings start sliding. There is a day coming when every American, new and old, will realize that the genuine face of terror contains every color in the spectrum. And that's one face that can't be bombed out of existence.

Culture Clash in AmeriCCA at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego, (619) 544-1000. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through May 5. $31-$40.


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