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Comedy, Sex and Being Recognized 

Monica Palacios and Culture Clash, separated but equal

Thursday, Aug 5 2004
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Photo by Alan Traeger

In 1984, the curator of San Francisco’s Galeria de la Raza, Rene Yanez, came up with the then-novel idea of a Latino sketch-comedy troupe. He assembled six performers, whom he knew individually but envisioned seeing together on the stage. This first incarnation of a group called Culture Clash included Monica Palacios, Marga Gomez, Herbert Siguenza, Ric Salinas, Richard Montoya and essayist/humorist Jose Antonio Burciaga.

The sextet initially performed solo standup in cafés and clubs from San Francisco’s Mission District to Sacramento to Palo Alto, but was not yet integrated into an ensemble. “The audiences really loved us; they had never seen anything like that before,” Palacios explains.

Yet as the idea of performing together on the stage slowly set in, the women (Palacios and Gomez) fell away, and Burciaga later died.

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“We’d have meetings and share ideas for sketches,” Palacios says as the Metro train we’re riding climbs up and out of Union Station toward Chinatown. “Maybe it seemed sexist — the content of the sketches. We had a different idea of what was funny, what was comedy. The three guys were new to performing, whereas Marga and I had been doing it for a while.”

Twenty years later, Palacios — who shares the stage with four men in her play Hombres Talking About Life, Sex and Sangres at Highways next week — has traveled her own winding road, following the shifting terrain of performance and identity/gender politics. Stops along the way have included Palacios as female comic, as lesbian/Chicana performance artist, as lesbian/Chicana comic and now as playwright/performer. Earlier this year, she developed a new play, Sweet Peace, as part of a postdoctoral Rockefeller grant from the Center for Chicano Studies at UC Santa Barbara. In her upcoming show at Highways, two of her “hombres” are straight and perform their own writings in her show.

Meanwhile, the remaining trio of Culture Clash (Siguenza, Montoya and Salinas) have similarly expanded their comedy from Chicano concerns by incorporating them into larger matters of history, politics and urban life. They’ve established a kind of cottage industry for stage works about American cities, starting with Radio Mambo (Miami) and continuing through Bordertown (San Diego, Tijuana), Nuyorican Stories (New York), Mission Magic (San Francisco) and Anthems (Washington, D.C.). Explains Montoya, “We were able to comfortably move away from the identity politics of the early work. We could incorporate it into the later work without making it the centerpiece.”

Over the past two decades, South Coast Repertory has commissioned and staged their adaptation of Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy The Birds; the Mark Taper Forum called on the company to develop a performance about Dodger Stadium, Chavez Ravine (a hit last year); and Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage has just premiered Culture Clash’s adaptation of an old, unproduced Frank Loesser script called Señor Discretion. In addition, the company created 30 episodes of the first-ever Latino/Chicano-themed and -performed variety comedy series, called Culture Clash the TV Show, filmed for Fox TV. (It never took off, and Montoya has his own theories for why overly cautious Hispanic television executives lag behind the curve of accessibility and profit.)

The troupe’s latest effort for the stage, Culture Clash in AmeriCCa — a new work compiled from their plays about American cities — is being performed this month for two weeks at Hollywood’s Assistance League Playhouse.

And while Culture Clash has clearly found ways to float in the mainstream — particularly in politically balanced plays like Chavez Ravine, which initially was largely supported by Westside audiences and only later by Latino crowds — Palacios has been reluctant to dabble in waters beyond the fringe.

 

Monica Palacios grew up as one of six siblings in San Jose. “My father was a machinist, always performing, whistling, playing the guitar, the maracas,” Palacios says, looking out the window, enchanted as the Gold Line train crosses the L.A. River. (It’s her first excursion on any local train.) “He’d play all these contemporary songs, like Frank Sinatra, in mariachi,” she explains. “We were like the Mexican Partridge Family.”

Living in Venice, Palacios says she doesn’t know East L.A. As the Gold Line carriage meanders through historic neighborhoods around Lincoln Park, the Avenue 50 Gallery appears outside the window. “Oh!” she remarks. “I always get e-mails from them. Now I know where they are.”

Palacios went to an all-girl Catholic high school, though she says she didn’t have any sexual experiences there. “I was a big jock,” she says, “and I would participate in the accusations: ‘Oh, those girls are a bunch of lezzies.’”

But a couple of years later, a light bulb went off.

“Having sex with a man never felt right for me. I’d be double dating, and my girlfriend would be all over her guy, and I’d respect the guy I was with, but I’d be — ‘uh, I’d rather have some chocolate cake.’”

In 1981, Palacios started performing at the Other Café, a straight club in San Francisco. “I just did funny,” she explains. “I wasn’t thinking about sexuality or nationality or anything. It wasn’t until [San Francisco’s] Valencia Rose Café came into my life that I took that gay/lesbian direction in my performance.”

In 1986, after having joined and left Culture Clash, and feeling that she’d exhausted her possibilities in the Bay Area, Palacios tried her luck in New York and didn’t fare well. And she missed Mexican food. (“They were telling me it was Mexican food in New York, but I just didn’t believe it.”) In 1987, a friend invited her to live in Glendale. Her sister bought her a one-way ticket to Southern California, and after Palacios arrived here, she got a bicycle, which she rode to her waitress job at Burbank’s Smoke House restaurant.

“I was the only ‘out’ lesbian. I worked with a bunch of Latino men with the attitude sort of like, ‘Monica, you’re a lesbian because you haven’t been with the right men.’ My ego was as flat as a tortilla.”

After she bombed at the Comedy Store, Palacios grew increasingly gun-shy about being in mainstream clubs. Yet, from the more comfortable corner she’s relegated herself to, Palacios has accrued a slew of honors and the respect of her peers.

“A lot of people ask me, aren’t you afraid to be a mainstream lesbian? Yes, I am. That’s why it’s important for me to create a space for me, like Highways, where they want me to be who I am. They don’t come there to heckle me, like they do at the Comedy Club, where I’ve heard people say, ‘Keep heckling them, they like that.’ It’s important for me to create my own space and to do it my way,” Palacios says as the train slithers back into Union Station.

 

Herbert Siguenza, on a lunch break from jury duty, stands mostly stoic, facing front and center, with Richard Montoya and Ric Salinas parked on either side, clowning, as this newspaper’s photographer snaps their portrait in front of the historic Avila Adobe on Olvera Street. Tourists recognize them and ask for autographs.

Montoya admits that the Taper dramaturges used a “velvet glove” to prevent Chavez Ravine from being too pedantic, and that Gordon Davidson was in a “tricky situation” trying to avoid offending the city powers that also support his theater — powers whose ancestors were complicit in destroying neighborhoods to profit from the construction of Dodger Stadium, as was dramatized in Chavez Ravine.

“I think the man does love Los Angeles in an important kind of way,” explains Montoya. “He wants to leave us with a gift that will keep on giving. Whether [the complaints] were whispers, or whatever, he always asked politely.”

Politically balanced on a pinhead, Chavez Ravine was a long way from Culture Clash’s rage of yore and lore. “At the Palace in Hollywood a few weeks back, we did a gig with Ozomatli for Robbie Conal and Shepard Fairey as they released their anti-Bush posters,” Montoya says. “What we did was drag a naked Iraqi prisoner across the stage as Herbert sang Neil Diamond’s ‘America,’ in true CC fashion. I nearly got 86ed from the club because they didn’t have a burlesque license, or so I was told by angry bouncers with USMC tattoos.”

Such shenanigans may explain why Culture Clash doesn’t get invited to Latino theater festivals, and why — despite having been on the main stages of the Taper and Arena Stage — they feel relegated to the margins.

“You get pigeonholed,” Salinas says.

“I get really pissed off when we don’t get invited to academic conferences,” adds Montoya, half-joking.

Says Salinas, “As a result, I don’t think people are seeing our stuff. We’ve never been to Louisville, Sundance.”

“We should be at Sundance,” Montoya pipes in. “I slept with [theater programming director] Robert Blacker.”

Hombres Talking About Life, Sex and Sangres | Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica (310) 315-1459 Sunday, August 8, 8:30 p.m.

Culture Clash in AmeriCCa | Assistance League Playhouse, 1367 N. St. Andrews Pl., Hollywood | (800) 595-4849 | Through August 29

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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