Brown Out

The barrio boys of Culture Clash's The Mission wanna give it up for Latino culture. If only someone will let them. The ersatz Culture Clash now appearing at Scottsdale's Metro Theatre is actually the cast of Teatro Bravo's retread of the famous group's breakout play, but it's selling the same bill: No one will give Latinos a break, but isn't it funny?

The Mission concerns the Clash members as they attempt to find work as actors without giving up their personal politics. In a last-ditch attempt at getting a Hollywood audition, they kidnap Julio Iglesias and demand to be seen by a television producer as ransom. This tiny story takes two hours to tell because it's continually interrupted by slapstick, standup routines and fantasy sequences, all of them aimed at proving that Latinos are invisible in the entertainment industry.

Culture Clash's passion for Chicano causes infuses all of the troupe's work, which was launched in 1984 in a San Francisco art gallery. The trio was trying to keep alive the dying embers of teatro movimento, a faction of theater activists of the '60s devoted to promoting Chicano culture. By then, the movement's rather strident message had become about evil white males victimizing Latinos; Culture Clash reinvented the genre with crisp, funny writing and frenetic movement. Rather than exalting Latino cultural icons, the troupe juxtaposed them with their contemporary counterparts -- Frida Kahlo with Andy Garcia; Cesar Chávez with the Frito Bandito -- for big yuks. The group busted ethnic stereotypes by mocking them -- hardly a revolutionary idea anymore, but still funny when it's done this well.

The troupe broke big with The Mission in 1990, and subsequent work caught on quickly, resulting in seven full-length productions (including an adaptation of Aristophanes' The Birds) and a short-lived television show. Now, it's doing well enough that its work is being covered by small acting troupes around the country.

Which is fine, since really no one has heard of the Clash's Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza. Here, they're exuberantly represented by another pair of unknowns -- Andrew Valenzuela and Anthony Morales -- and by Teatro Bravo's Guillermo Reyes, the lauded playwright, who replaced one of the principals on opening night. The trio, assisted by George Cole as Iglesias and several other characters, is well-suited to the frantic funny stuff here, which is mostly spiced-up standup material and a lot of skits about brown people as Hollywood outsiders. The script's social satire is devoted mostly to deciding whether mission founder Father Junipero Serra deserves canonization by the pope. Serra apparently abused the Native Americans he converted, and Culture Clash casts him here as Iglesias' great-grandfather to draw political parallels and because Julio Iglesias is a funny punch line to any joke.

Best bits include a hilarious skit about a taco stand, Tacqueria Serra, where gringos place funny orders (i.e., quesadillas without cheese) and line cooks wear pope hats and remind one another to "speak with an authentic beaner accent." About 90 minutes in, the cast stomps through a classic Culture Clash routine, full of cholo jokes and references to Spanish history -- they're the Ritz Brothers with a social conscience; a green-card Groucho, Harpo and Chico without the seltzer.

Still, there's something decidedly middle-class white about Culture Clash's material, which owes as much to old Martin and Lewis flicks as it does political grandstanding. There's an urban sensibility to their soapbox serenades: They may start out talking about Latino visibility, but they quickly digress into a five-minute set of sight gags involving road traffic cones and silly accents. What the heck. It's funny, and it carries a resounding message: Latinos can laugh at themselves, but theirs will always be the last -- and probably least politically correct -- laugh.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela