How do you keep political satire funny when the president of the United States is in legal peril from a porn star, cabinet members and press reps speak fluent Orwell, and Dr. Strangelove could be tweeting what passes for foreign policy? That’s a challenge for renowned political satire trio Culture Clash as they prepare “Bordertown Now,” a new production at the Pasadena Playhouse that overhauls their 1998 hit “Bordertown” while addressing border immigration, communities, and real and imagined walls.
“The satire that’s going on in the country is crazier than what we could think of,” observes Ric Salinas, who has been skewering establishment mores and cultural prejudices alongside Richard Montoya and Herbert Siguenza for 34 years.
“The Oval Office is the epicenter of satire,” Montoya agrees. But rather than making comedy out of “death and shootings and narcos and cartels,” they’re presenting their humor with deeper heart.
“Bordertown Now” is principally built from interviews conducted by Montoya along the California-Mexico border over the past few years. Actress Sabina Zúñiga Varela, who appeared in Culture Clash’s 2015 production “Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival,” frees the men from dressing up in drag. The scripts depict a country that’s morphed from exalting the “don’t fence me in” cowboy ethos into “a nation of fences and walls” unsure how to protect its children from each other in school. It imaginatively untangles thorny knots such as border cartels’ complicity in gun culture and the US origins of El Salvador’s vicious MS-13 gang, backdropped by 20-by-20-foot mockups of Trump’s proposed wall.
“They’re pretty much prototypes of what we see in Otay, the location where the walls are built in San Diego County,” director Diane Rodriguez explains. “Those walls are 30 by 30. They’re pretty monstrous.”
Underscoring the show’s topicality, each Playhouse performance will be followed by townhall-like discussions featuring community leaders such as “La Cucaracha” cartoonist Lalo Alcarez, radio journalist Betto Arcos, Pasadena Museum of Contemporary Art Executive Director Susana Bautista, KPCC’s “The Frame” producer Oscar Garza, UCLA history professor Kelly Lytle Hernández, Los Angeles City Council member José Huizar, All Saints Episcopal Church Rector Mike Kinman, National Hispanic Media Coalition President Alex Nogales, ex-Poet Laureate of Los Angeles Luis J. Rodriguez, and representatives from the Immigration Resource Center of San Gabriel Valley.
Salinas says they found inspiration for “Bordertown” in Anna Deavere Smith’s Tony award-nominated play “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” a series of interlocking monologues developed out of interviews conducted after the LA riots. Culture Clash’s version of “docu-theatre” fashions composite characters and scenes with public figures such as Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
“We kind of make him into a Patton figure,” Salinas says. “We dramatize it. After all, it is a paying audience that wants to be entertained. We’re not going to feed people propaganda; they could just watch CNN or Fox.”
The San Diego-born Montoya, who says Arpaio mistook him and an activist companion for college film students, was “blindsided” by commonalities between his family and Arpaio’s. He was also keenly aware that the media-savvy sheriff was playing him like the proverbial fiddle.
“Two hours flew by. He took me into his beautifully appointed office full of toys and trinkets and hits the button on an old tape recorder and it’s Frank Sinatra singing ‘My Way.’ You can’t make that stuff up.
“By giving him the same due that we give the Border Angels, we came away with theater gold. That makes his character and what he’s saying a little more harrowing because you forget for a moment that it was [his] policies that led to what one of the other characters calls ‘open season on Mexicans’ on the border. Before you know it you want to have a cocktail with Grampa Joe. He comes off with this ‘aw, shucks’ manner. We hit him directly on, ‘Hey, your parents emigrated from Italy; what’s the difference between your Italian grandparents and my Mexican grandparents?’ He qualified all that by saying his grandparents came in legally through Ellis Island, and that ours may have come in through a trickle of brown water called the Rio Grande.”
He says desert heatwaves brought a “weird clarity” to his interviews with border crossers, ICE agents, Sisters of Mercy, safe house residents, sanctuary workers, Jesuit priests, and Border Angels who leave water in the desert for migrants.
“We took sunblock number 15 to the desert when no one out there’s worried about sunblock,” he recalls. “We took organic kombucha to a safe house in Nogales and people were looking at us like we were offering drugs. We wanted to comfort those around us when we had no water left in our beautiful Thermoses and our designer backpacks. We got it wrong so much of the time it’s a wonder we got out of some of these areas alive. … The negotiator who took us to the safe house in Nogales looked a lot like the narco trafficante guy we had to drive past.”
Such human misreadings provided fresh humor: “The laughter opens up the synapses in our brains and our hearts. It kind of lifts up what otherwise would be pretty unbearable and almost unthinkable material situations.”
Rodriguez, who is also associate artistic director of the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, has been striving for “three-dimensionality,” mindful of the need to balance the serious with the silly without betraying the tone of the original “Bordertown.” Varela, she says, is vital: “Having her in the show, her female presence, is absolutely necessary to balance it out.”
Variety once described Culture Clash as a “Chicano Marx Brothers.” But despite the wisecracks with which Montoya and Salinas pepper their conversation, neither strays far from the gravity of their show’s concerns. For instance, one of the two characters carried over from the original production is a fully armed civilian militia man Montoya says looked “like Rambo threw up all over him.” (The other character is a black journalist).
“We gotta listen to this guy who’s also watching over the ranch of his neighbors,” says the El Salvador-born Salinas, who was raised in San Francisco and is now a US citizen residing in Silver Lake. “All of a sudden there’s garbage and shootings and defecation, and he’s scared for his daughters and his family. You can’t hate a guy like that. …
“It’s ‘Bordertown Now,’ and it’s also the border of our mind; the border between life and death; black and white neighborhoods; documented deaths that we know about versus undocumented. What side are you on? Ultimately we’re not going to give all the answers, but we want to show some of the despair and some of the hope. We have empathy for people on both sides. What’s really messed up is the vilifying. That’s one of the main points we want to make.”
“Bordertown Now” runs through June 24 at Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, with performances at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, plus 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday; $25-$89. Info: (626) 356-7529. Pasadenaplayhouse.org