By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In making his early pledge to present Water & Power, Ritchie says he had faith that Montoya would come up with a saleable play. There’s faith, and then there’s faith based on precedence: Culture Clash’s successful affiliations with regional theaters include the Taper, Berkeley Repertory Theater, South Coast Repertory, Boston’s Huntington Theater, Houston’s Alley Theater, Syracuse Stage, Yale Repertory and the Goodman Theater in Chicago. The troupe also has a reputation for funny, caustic and thoughtful profiles of American cities — Miami in Radio Mambo (1995); San Diego in Bordertown (1998); New York in Nuyorican Stories (1999); Washington, D.C., in Anthems: Culture Clash in the District (2002); and Los Angelesin Chavez Ravine (2003).
There are other reasons for Ritchie’s faith: No local-theater watcher will forget the sight of new crowds from places like Alhambra, Chino and Montebello pouring into the Taper for Chavez Ravine. Industry types may also recall the sizzling box-office numbers for Chavez Ravine that ran in Variety.Also, like Chavez Ravine, Water & Poweris directed by Peterson with Glore in place as dramaturge.
However, there may be an artistic affinity between Ritchie and Culture Clash that runs deeper than Ritchie’s hopes for robust ticket sales. Though couched in the lingo of new-play development, Ritchie’s dismantling of the Taper’s minority playwriting labs was actually a stinging slap in the face of ’80s identity politics. (The labs were established by Davidson to explore and expose the impact of stereotypes, while depicting the world through lesser-known ethnic perspectives.)
Culture Clash has similarly disparaged the kind of identity-driven humor that, as part of a social agenda, sometimes chafes against using stereotypes. Though Culture Clash may have been weaned on the milk of that humor and retains its leftist politics, the company has been steadily reaching for broader audiences by adopting an increasingly anarchistic, politically incorrect satire that, like traditional Italian commedia, derives from stereotypes and pokes fun at all sides in political arguments.
In 1984, curator Rene Yanez came up with the then-novel idea of Latino sketch comedy for his Galería de la Raza in San Francisco’s Mission District. He brought together Monica Palacios, Marga Gomez, Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza and Ric Salinas and essayist/humorist Jose Antonio Burciaga. The troupe would typically perform in venues from San Francisco to Sacramento. The women soon fell away, and Burciaga later died. The remaining trio make up the current membership of Culture Clash.
Throughout the early rehearsals of Water & Power,Montoya — the company’s handsome leading player and unofficial spokesperson — occasionally goofs off by parading his senator with a swishy stride and slightly limp wrists, adding a muted lisp and a subtly accentuated nasality to some exaggerated indignation, which he portrays with a snap of his head and a sharp inhale. This is not his character in the play; he’s just amusing himself with one of many spontaneous parodies. One can see how lesbian comedians like Gomez and Palacios, who have always challenged gay stereotypes, might have been disgruntled by Montoya’s clowning.
“We’d have meetings and share ideas for sketches,” Palacios told the Weeklyin 2004. “Maybe it seemed sexist — the content of the sketches. We had different ideas of what was funny, what was comedy.”
One can also see from the sheer technical brilliance of Montoya’s riffs why Culture Clash draws crowds.
Though Ritchie’s pledge to produce Water & Poweron the basis of one pitch and no script seems on the surface like a cavalier response to the normally grinding process of new-play development, there has actually been plenty of grinding. Peterson and, to a lesser extent, Glore, have been following Culture Clash around the country for readings while Montoya has been turning out drafts throughout the past year.
Montoya, Peterson and Glore were still cobbling together a new draft from various versions — “the Houston draft,” “the Berkeley draft” — during the first week of rehearsals at the Taper. Montoya tells me of a dream he had — that he had died and Peterson was giving a eulogy over his coffin, reading from the script of Water & Power. “Here, I must refer to the Berkeley draft,” Peterson said in the dream.
“In March, I went up with them to Berkeley, where they were doing Zorro,” Peterson explains in the Taper Annex during a lunch break. “We worked very hard in those five days to streamline. Michael [Ritchie] came up for that. We wanted to prove to Michael it could work.”
Richard Montoya grew up in the ’60s with four brothers and one sister in the small rural town of Wheatland, about 60 miles north of Sacramento.
“I was a very quiet kid. My mom says I didn’t talk or walk until I was three. All my brothers are, like, 6-footers, star athletes.”
The central family dynamic, Montoya says, was the competition for approval. His father, José, was a high school teacher and political activist who also worked in the fields where hops are grown for beer.
“He’d come home after a hard day’s work, we’d open his beer and take swigs, which was fine with him, but not so fine with Mom,” Montoya remembers. “He was always trying to instill old-school stuff, clean clothes and shiny shoes.”