“On the border of sanity and injustice,” Culture Clash takes the stage once again with Bordertown Now. Twenty years ago, the trio of Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Sigüenza) brought us to Bordertown, a presentation filled with humor and politically conscious writing. With the addition of Sabina Zúñiga Varela, they're back and bolder than ever.
The play is at the Pasadena Playhouse through Sunday, June 24, and it's a must-see, with each production followed by a post-show conversation featuring immigration experts and community leaders. Participants have included 2014 Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez; the director of the Inland Coalition for Immigration Justice, Javier Hernández; and Gustavo Arellano, L.A. Times opinion columnist.
The 90-minute play, as directed by Obie Award winner Diane Rodriguez, takes the audience on a thought-provoking, full-circle journey to Nogales, San Diego, Maricopa County in Arizona and back to the border where it began. There is a brief detour (Culture Clash style) featuring a TED Talk about El Salvador and the impact U.S. politics had on its people during the Reagan years.
As referenced in the title Bordertown Now, Culture Clash does not shy away from its controversial setting — la frontera (the border) — and all of the complexities and conflicts that come with it. Ingeniously, the border is a perpetual staple of the show. The play opens with two reporters and the border’s imposing presence in the background. The design of the border, reminiscent of jail cell bars, stands in the background like another character. It is steely, cold and grand. It is the dividing line, separating “us” from “them.” It is like the wall we have all read and heard so much about, but even more ominous, like a Brothers Grimm tale.
Twenty years ago border politics and immigration populated news media; this play unapologetically and satirically conveys how little has changed, unfortunately. Today, courtesy of news and TV but also via social media outlets like Twitter, we are discussing these topics more than ever. Throughout the play, the characters explicitly bring up current topical issues and buzz words — everything from Black Lives Matter to Colin Kaepernick, the #MeToo movement, gentrification and the term “Latinx.”
Bordertown Now is broken into vignettes that interconnect without losing its audience, a remarkable achievement for its modest length. Culture Clash weaves a storyline circulating around the nucleus of resistance, politics, humanity and connectivity — all with humor and sociocultural political awareness.
Not only does it challenge its audience but it also immortalizes real-life narratives, such as those of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez (the unarmed 16-year-old Mexican boy who was shot 10 times by Border Patrol through slats on the American side of the fenced-in border while innocently walking near his home in Nogales, Sonora) and the controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio (famously pardoned by Donald Trump last year after being convicted of criminal contempt of court).
Richard Montoya’s portrayal of Sheriff Joe is one of the show’s finest moments. When asked how he prepared for such a role, Montoya reflected on his personal interview with Arpaio two years ago, “He [Arpaio] squirmed. He wiggled, but he revealed a lot,” he says. “We left thinking, 'We failed because he played us,' but the justice and poetics is now two years later. I literally get to play him. Is he the devil we know? Did we humanize him? I love when social justice hits the stage in this way. It’s not easy work, but Jose Antonio’s eyes look down on the sheriff. The two Joes are locked in a duel for the eternities.”
Montoya’s embodiment of Arpaio is best seen in his soliloquy coupled with Phil Collins’ iconic song “In the Air Tonight.” After watching the performance, rereading the song's lyrics is a necessity. It's an example of the carefully curated music in Bordertown Now, which also includes scene breaks intermingled with perfectly chosen classics like “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin, “South of the Border” by Frank Sinatra and “Don’t Fence Me In” by Roy Rogers.
From beginning to end, this show's writing is effective in creating a full-circle experience. When two reporters (Montoya and Salinas) are immediately asked to validate their citizenship by a vigilante (Sigüenza) who pulls his weapon on them at the start of the show, instinctively, the audience will not like his aggression. But the relationship between the reporters and the vigilante evolves and, appropriately, the play begins and ends with these three characters.
Zúñiga-Varela's portrayal of real-life activist Kat Rodriguez also is pivotal to the plot and message. Her scenes as Rodriguez with Sheriff Arpaio are nothing less than tense, and she becomes the voice of the audience asking questions we all would, given the opportunity. Varela's other roles — as a border angel and a determined border crosser who wants to see her son — show real acting chops. They also show reverence for the real people they're based on, people with strong conviction and hope. As she tells one of the reporters (Montoya), in her role as a determined Mexican mother: “A wall can never stop a butterfly.”
Kicking off the final weekend of Bordertown Now performances, Pasadena Playhouse has announced that CHIRLA (Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights) will present a continuation of its “Immigration Art Night — A Celebration of Our Immigrant Heritage,” on Friday, June 22. The postperformance talk that evening will feature multidisciplinary artists Xicanx Sun Cha and Gabriella Sanchez discussing “art as space and catalyst of identity exploration and experimentation, curated by House of Arts and Ideas.”
Bordertown Now continues through Sunday, June 24, at Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; (626) 356-7529. Tickets starting at $25 available at PasadenaPlayhouse.org.