Actor, writer Richard Montoya discusses Berkeley’s affecting legacy

Photo of Richard Montoya
Berkeley Repertory Theatre/Courtesy

Related Posts

There’s no shortage of things that Richard Montoya loves about Bay Area culture — the Mission District, Carlos Santana, the Golden State Warriors. Perhaps most striking for Montoya is the East Bay’s artistic forebears: poets like Joaquin Miller, Diane de Prima and Montoya’s father José Montoya, whose works are informed by their time in Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley.

“It’s really those golden gates that kick us off into a rich California legacy that has to do with the West, our literature,” Montoya said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I am about unpacking moments in our history that show precisely when Ginsberg and the Chicanos were hanging out, (or) when Ferlinghetti and my dad appeared in the same anthology.”

Montoya’s piece for Berkeley Rep’s “Place/Settings” — a 10-episode series in which local writers share stories centered on specific Berkeley sites — orbits this moment. Titled “Suicide on Telegraph,” the piece sketches Telegraph Avenue in the 1950s and 1960s, the centerpiece of a frenetic cultural exchange influenced by the liberative sensibilities of the Beat Generation. But Montoya’s connection to this era is more than just that of a detached literary scholar; the piece opens with Montoya as an infant, accompanying his father while he presides over a table of fellow art students and activists at a Telegraph eatery. 

“There was Cal, the university. There was the art school (California College of the Arts, then called the California College of Arts and Crafts). And then, there was the school that was Telegraph Avenue,” shared Montoya. “I feel like my dad was involved in all of them. If I look into my early development as a child … the first three years of my life are spent in Oakland with my dad, being a student at art school.”

A result of this education is that Berkeley continues to loom large in Montoya’s imagination, even though he’s now lived in Los Angeles for about 25 years. Culture Clash, the Chicano performance troupe that Montoya co-founded, relished the chance to return to Berkeley Rep last year for the short-lived run of their sketch show, “Culture Clash (Still) in America” (Berkeley theatergoers, according to Montoya, are a “dream audience,” willing to engage with heavy subject matter that others might not). The homecoming was, of course, cut short by the pandemic. Montoya recalled a “sympathy lunch” he shared with Berkeley Rep’s Artistic Director Johanna Pfaelzer the day after the production shuttered. There, he began to pitch her the stories from his childhood that would eventually become “Suicide on Telegraph.”

The somber title refers to student suicides at UC Berkeley, an issue that brings Montoya’s piece to the present day.

“We were lecturing in one of the classes there at Berkeley, and I was talking to some psych students … it became very evident that some of them were carrying around the very recent, very raw grief of student suicide at Cal,” Montoya remembered. “Every time I hear something like that, it touches me.”

Montoya commemorates these students in his piece, pairing them with the great poets that preside over his stirring portrait of Berkeley. “I thought if the poets, in a sense, could somehow guide a fallen student through the hereafter, for me (that) would be a beautiful thing. I don’t want to get too New Age-y about it, but when I’m sitting at a cafe on Telegraph, my mind tends to think about those things,” he explained.

This is one of the many ways in which “Suicide on Telegraph” constructs a porous boundary between past and present; in one of Montoya’s favorite passages, he compares his father’s poetry to that of John Muir, who lived and died almost a century earlier. “John Muir is talking about … how beautiful the San Joaquin Valley is, a blanket of yellows and reds — and my dad has the same exact poem,” he mused. “And it’s not a question of plagiarism. It’s just overlapping.” 

For Montoya, it seems, history and poetry are always overlapping — especially in the Bay Area.

“There’s something about that light that bounces off (the East Bay) that shimmers a little bit more. The poetic side of me is really left to wonder what’s traveling in that light … for me, sometimes, it’s the spirits of students or poets. If you read some of the great Bay Area poets, they all tend to, at some point in their anthologies, write about the light of the East Bay,” he said.

Montoya returned to Berkeley for a drive around a month ago, once again seeking that unquantifiable East Bay light. “There’s something about Berkeley, on a Sunday that goes from clouds to sun and back again, that is just really evocative,” he said. Self-effacingly, he added: “I love all of California — but I don’t get that feeling in Burbank.”

Contact Grace Orriss at [email protected]. Tweet her at @graceorriss.