By May S. Ruiz
Immigration is a hot-button topic that touches the lives of all Americans. It is a subject politicians exploit on the campaign trail as much as it is a well from which activists draw causes to fight for. And it is the theme that the comedy troupe Culture Clash explores in ‘Bordertown Now’ at The Pasadena Playhouse.
On stage from Wednesday, May 30 to Sunday, June 24, ‘Bordertown Now’ takes an irreverent look at the people at the center of the controversial issues and the walls that divide us. Infused with their trademark satirical approach, the country’s top Chicano/Latino performance trio messes with the boundaries of theatre and comedy to break down the divisions between cultures.
Culture Clash’s Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza are joined by Sabina Zuniga Varela. Varela appeared with Culture Clash in ‘Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival’ at the Kirk Douglas Theatre on the occasion of the troupe’s 30th anniversary in 2015.
‘Bordertown Now’ is directed by Obie Award-winning artist Diane Rodriguez. She began her career as an ensemble member in the politically conscious, El Teatro Campesino and is now Associate Artistic Director of the Tony Award-winning Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. In 2016 President Barack Obama appointed her to the National Council on the Arts, a body that advises the Director of the National Endowment for the Arts.
To shine a light on the various issues, there will be post-show conversations after each performance on different topics including immigration, border policy, and more, led by topic experts.
Danny Feldman, Pasadena Playhouse Producing Artistic Director, says, “For more than a year, the immigration debate has been in the news on a daily basis. It is so rare to be able to present a new work that directly responds to our ever-changing world. Who better to examine this issue than the iconic troupe Culture Clash, making their Playhouse debut. Through humor, satire, sentiment, and curiosity, they manage to bring us closer to the humanity at the center of the border issues.”
Richard Montoya explains the group’s roots, “I co-founded Culture Clash on Cinco de Mayo in 1984 in San Francisco’s Mission District at a historic Latin quarter in a small art gallery. Art is very much a part of our vibe.
We first produced ‘Bordertown’ two decades ago and while ‘Bordertown Now’ is billed as a re-imagination of that, about 70 percent of this show is new because political awareness and interest about the border have grown in intensity.
There’s so much going on around the country relative to the concerns we’re exploring so it was easy for us to harvest new material. The issues have become more powerful and polarizing but we’re also going to find the humor in the circumstances that plague immigrants. It’s a comedy that’s balanced with serious topics, a reality show that sometimes plays like satire. There’s nothing more farcical than what’s happening now.”
“During the last year or so, I’ve been busy on the border interviewing sheriffs, agents, and the people who are caring for those who are crossing the border,” continues Montoya. “I’m doing something similar to journalistic work. And then we recreate the characters for our show. It’s like an anthology production where we’re putting together the pieces, connecting all the things that happen on the border.”
“The landscape and the cast remain the same but besides that, policing around the area has changed rapidly,” Montoya explains. “Armed personnel presence on the border has increased so much that it has become a military situation. At the same time, the danger brought on by the drug cartel has also grown and so has the desperation of those caught in the middle. This scene is so different from that of my youth when there was a trolley service from San Diego to Tijuana.”
“California is such a fertile ground on which to examine this issue,” Montoya remarks. “We have borders within borders – whether it’s between Old Town Pasadena and South Pasadena, or between Los Angeles and San Francisco. I was born and raised in San Francisco and I moved to Los Angeles 25 years ago. And I can’t believe the disparity between Northern and Southern California, it’s mind blowing … which just proves the cultural richness we have in the state. But beyond the geographical borders, ‘Bordertown Now’ examines divisions between genders, cultures, and the imagination.”
Montoya says further, “This time we’re adding other cultures, like Asian, into the mix … anyone who just arrived and eager to become American. This idea of becoming American is still very fresh. You know, when you’re in France, you’re French; and when you’re in Beijing, you’re Chinese. The United States is one of the very few places where you can become an American. And it’s that notion which attracts so many to our country. And one of the questions the play asks is ‘What is the cost of being an American?’”
“While our show is a comedy, we want to show a serious aspect: that we’re all human beings – even those who are hiding in the Mexican desert, trying to cross the border illegally. What our current administration and other countries have done is dehumanize the person on the other side.”
“We’re not saying that borders don’t exist, because they do. Nor are we claiming we’re all equal, because we’re not. But we’re saying we’re all human beings – there are people caught in drug and human trafficking. We’re trying to show the human struggle, and the human-ness outside of the headline. We want to take the measurement of their lives, and not treat them simply as data. And, as artists, we want to keep alive the hope and show that we care about all these,” declares Montoya.
Culture Clash’s ‘Bordertown Now’ examines subjects that are timely and of significance. It puts a human face to the immigration issue. Would that people see it, take it to heart, and seize the opportunity to play a part in chipping away at the borders that divide us from each other.