‘Culture Clash (Still) in America’ provides relentless reality, laughter at Berkeley Rep

Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre/Courtesy

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Spectators at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre alternated between doubling over in laughter and sitting deep in pensive thought as they watched Chicano troupe Culture Clash perform brilliantly in “Culture Clash (Still) in America.” The comedy show on Thursday, organized as an updated readaptation of the group’s previous “Culture Clash” routines, featured a wide range of topics: from immigrant detainees to gospel preachers debunking the white Jesus myth. 

Beginning with an interrogation scene at an immigration detention center, “Culture Clash” initially appeared grim and distressing. Two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, officers (Ric Salinas and Herbert Sigüenza) questioned the detainee, a Mexican father (Richard Montoya), on why he had crossed the border. Montoya injected inventive doses of humor into his role despite the sketch’s serious tone, peppering his dialogue with hilarious Spanglish turns of phrase and plenty of facetiousness. The show truly began when Salinas and Sigüenza took off their fake ICE uniforms to reveal their real identities as theater producers, interviewing a variety of people on their experiences and worldviews. 

The events that followed featured Salinas, Sigüenza and Montoya as a theater-producing trio conducting interviews across the country. Throughout the production, the extraordinarily talented group embodied a bafflingly diverse range of characters, poking fun at themselves and the production itself. Doing away with the fourth wall altogether, they interacted constantly with the crowd. 

In a sketch involving a conservative, married couple in South Florida, Salinas did a spectacular job portraying the bubbly Cuban wife of the pair, Francis. His performance echoed Nathan Lane’s brilliant acting in the dinner scene of the film “The Birdcage,” with his use of extreme enthusiasm and pep exaggerating the character. In a later sketch, Sigüenza’s depiction of a street-savvy transgender woman, Adelita, was equally applaudable. The performance sparked an open dialogue on queer sexual health while simultaneously drawing constant chuckles out of the audience with her sass and charismatic personality. 

One act involved Montoya as a Jordanian American of Palestinian descent. The scene opened with a subtle enactment of Muslim prayer before Montoya delved into an engaging, charismatic monologue. His character, Mohammad, discussed living in the United States as an Arab American, as well as the generational gap between immigrant parents and their children. The scene’s writing was successful in that it gracefully straddled the line between the taboo and the relatable, lightheartedly flipping stereotypes into endearingly hilarious one-liners. 

Immigration was another prominent topic in the performance, one notable sketch featuring Salinas and Sigüenza as Pilipinx and Ugandan immigrants attending their citizenship ceremony. Salinas attempted to portray someone who was aiming for complete assimilation, his character whipping out a “Make America Great Again” cap to show his blind support for the American government. Meanwhile, Sigüenza’s character was more skeptical of adapting wholeheartedly to the American lifestyle and took a more balanced approach, expressing his gratitude for political freedom in the United States while still remaining critical. 

The final scene was one of the most emotionally poignant, showing an interview with Sigüenza as a poet living under the Brooklyn Bridge. The scene reflected on the country’s current situation, highlighting the importance of keeping the Chicanx poetry movement alive. Sigüenza’s portrayal of the poet was somber and exceptionally executed, the climactic conclusion of the act ending on notes of resistance and hope. 

Through “Culture Clash (Still) in America,” Salinas, Montoya and Sigüenza showed the audience that they still have the same electricity and dynamic energy of their former years in the original “Culture Clash” performances. Each scene’s writing and execution was beautifully thought-out and extremely relevant to the current cultural climate, serving as a powerful spark to the flame of change. As the members of Culture Clash said in the final scene, “This is still America to us,” and indeed, their vision of a diverse and unified United States will persist.

Luna Khalil covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected].