As part of the sociopolitical-infused comedy trio Culture Clash, Richard Montoya has spent much of the past 35 years traveling, performing, interviewing, and hearing and writing stories about what it means to be an American, as well as what America itself means. But though he, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza have created site-specific shows from San Diego to Miami and have performed various compilations of those shows many places in between, he says nowhere is as fascinating as where they’re back for the fourth time: Orange County.
“If I want to see hipsters, I go to Silver Lake; if I want to see the world, I come to Orange County,” Montoya says.
On the surface, OC seems less than welcoming for three lefty, Chicano, cage-rattling satirists. As former OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano wrote in a 2006 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, the county has a “bizarre history of hating the Mexican . . . [where] racist sneezes become national hurricanes.”
From the creation of the border-vigilante Minuteman Project and helping to bankroll 1994’s Proposition 187 to a litany of discriminatory housing and education policies, a county that has relied so much on Mexican labor, tax dollars and wonderful taquerías has long nurtured an antipathy, if not outright hostility, toward our largest group of non-Anglo residents.
But instead of avoiding it, Montoya and comrades see the county as neither an exception to an ethnically diversifying America nor an oasis of white privilege detached from the currents of change and conflict roiling the rest of the country. Instead, they view it as ground zero for that change and conflict, from the blue wave reflected in the midterm elections to its white-supremacist idiots.
The trio’s newest show, Culture Clash (Still) In America, reflects that. Directed by Lisa Peterson and augmented by designers who have created the most technologically savvy and slickly produced Culture Clash show to date, Montoya says, it’s a combination of older material that remains eerily relevant and new material, most of which references OC. It explores stories such as the homeless encampments along the Santa Ana River and the Orange County jailhouse-snitch scandal. But, indirectly, the newer and older material about detention centers and a changing country also applies. Because, Montoya says, OC is America.
“We’re rehearsing our show [at South Coast Repertory, where it last appeared in 2008], where they’re doing A Christmas Carol, and the audiences look like Brady Bunch families, with a sprinkling of African-American and Latino families,” he says. “And then I’ll catch a post-rehearsal drink at Vaca [restaurant], and it’s completely integrated, and then I walk around South Coast Plaza, and it’s completely crazy, rich Asians, and I go into the theaters there, which is all I can afford, and they’re all Latinos. Laguna Beach is completely LGBTQ+; Fashion Island is an Arabic-Persian Fantasy Island. And I realize, ‘Holy shit, the world is in Orange County.’ It’s this fascinating petri dish, and I’m blown away by that.”
Culture Clash evolved from a trio of smart, snarky, sketch-comedy writers and performers with a political bent. Either as a unit or individually, the members have developed full-length plays ranging from a trilogy about Los Angeles history to a one-man show about Pablo Picasso. But Montoya realized something a couple of years ago while working on a project with a San Francisco troupe that led him to interviewing former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio: that through the years, Culture Clash has also evolved from performers working in the tradition of the grassroots, mobilizing narrative style championed by Luis Valdez’s El Teatro Campesino in the 1960s into something that is as much journalism as it is theater.
“We’ve finally figured out that we’re not just actors doing roles. We have become chroniclers, storytellers, ethnographic journalists of the theater,” Montoya says. “That’s why we love talking to [local journalist] beat writers everywhere we work. [It’s] the same way we’re in love with Sam Shepard, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen—these American chroniclers, people who tell stories of American lives, of new Americans, those in the margins, those literally dying to become Americans.”
And even if Culture Clash has matured in its commitment to chronicling the American experience, it’s still determined to raise hell whenever it can.
While he can’t speak for his compatriots, Montoya says, “I’m getting meaner, grumpier and more pissed-off and going down that dark path lighted by the tiki torches of Charlottesville. I’m haunted by that shit, and I don’t want America to forget that it should be haunted by that. So, when we’re talking about [homelessness] at the Santa Ana River or the OC Sheriff’s Department [and immigration], we’re talking about colonial memory, a colonial imprint, and we’ve got to shake up those ghosts, and we need to speak truth to power.”
And in a county that is tilting toward the blue, but which is still, let’s face it, Orange County, there’s no more challenging—and enjoyable—place to do that.
“In other parts of the country, a lot of times, audiences are silent, or indifferent or didn’t know whether they should be laughing,” Montoya says. “But in Orange County, it’s always a boisterous crowd, like a boxing match. And afterward, there’d be this 6-foot-4-inch white guy waiting for you at the bar, and you’d think, ‘Oh, shit,’ but he would say, ‘I didn’t agree with everything you said, but I laughed my ass off, and I’m going to buy you a drink.’
“So, this is kind of like taking the town-hall thing back,” he continues. “We’re going to discuss a lot of tough issues, and there’s going to be a lot of laughter and maybe some tears, but we’ve grown up, and Orange County has grown up, and I think we’re [both] capable of having this conversation.”
Culture Clash (Still) In America at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Previews begin Sun. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through Jan. 20, 2019. $20-$86.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???