Part 1 of 2
The Trump Administration’s zero tolerance policies, and news each day about children separated from their families, have parents fearful that they may not see them again. Under a President who has broadly defined illegal immigrants as “criminals” and “animals,” and defining immigrants as all “MS13” gang members, meanwhile a young girl from Guatamala was killed by border patrol.
The history of this country was that immigrants did the back-breaking work on the railroads, and in agriculture in the fields and their children got educated and assimilated. But that has all changed. Trump’s campaign promise of building a “Great Border Wall,” has left DACA students and many lives hanging in the balance.
This and so much more is some of the material waded through to produce the new production, “Bordertown Now.”
Twenty years after their original production, “Bordertown,” the infamous Culture Clash trio — Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza — with Sabina Zúñiga Varela and directed by Diane Rodriguez has produced “Bordertown Now” on stage at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Since 1984, Culture Clash has given their fans comedic satire, sketch comedy. This production of “Bordertown Now” provides a different kind of theater that isn’t black and white, but has many shades of gray. Armed with interviews conducted at the border, the characters on stage reflect the human side and a look into the lives that shape the many sides of the immigration debate, the hard stance vs. the conditions that push people desperately to the border.
The set is dramatic, filling the stage with a prototype of Trump’s border wall, and projections of actual footage are inserted appropriately that show the cruelty of border patrol officers who kick over life-saving jugs of water to evaporate in the harsh desert sun. This production, with many surprises, even shows a human side to Arizona’s notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The following is Part 1 of a conversation with Herbert Siguenza about “Bordertown Now:”
SFV Sun: After seeing the play, many people have said they didn't expect to see this ...many felt it was a lot to digest and didn't expect to see this kind of performance from Culture Clash. Some called it esoteric and a lot to unpack. Some said they needed time to think about what they saw.
Herbert Siguenza: That has always been our work, it has always been irreverent and esoteric and we go from low comedy to high intellectual thoughts and it's to high political thinking that's our style, we throw everything including the kitchen sink thinking and in a hour and a half we cover a lot from immigration policy, border policy, gun legislation, MS13, Salvadoran diaspora. We touch on a lot of subjects and there is a lot of humor in it too, but I think people are surprised because it is the least humorous in years and I think it much darker than people expected. But that's because the subject matter is so dark that it’s hard to make fun of it.
SFV Sun: I think that was the surprise for people. They didn't see what they expected to see from Culture Clash and just saw touches of that with the usual fast-paced comedy. It was very different and gave people pause, and they expressed surprise when they didn't find what would have been obvious — much deserved jokes and pokes at Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Herbert Siguenza: Richard actually interviewed him, so a lot of what you saw onstage is what he actually saw onstage, and some of it was enhanced. Overall the guy really knows what he's doing and we wanted to show the real person.
The depiction didn't show “Crazy Joe,” but showed a quieter side of him and a version of Joe that we didn't know existed. The side we see on-camera, that's the performer; these guys perform and stoke their base and we wanted to show the other side of him. There was a radio host in the 90's who was supportive of the militiaman, and we went to interview him at his radio station when we did the first Bordertown in San Diego. He was the nicest guy and you just wanted to hang out with him. That was the same with Sheriff Joe. They walk into a room and they kind of win you over. Joe came off when he interviewed him as a grandpa kind of guy and has this kind of cultured personality. We are all humans, we aren't all evil incarnate.
SFV Sun: In the production you also gave the vigilante at the border more than a face — you gave him a heart. We didn't see the kind of vigilante protestors we see on videos shared on Facebook, the kind of people who hate immigrants, spitting at immigrant's faces at the border. It was a softer play.
Herbert Siguenza: We wanted to give the vigilante at the border a human face as well. It's a complex issue, it's not just black and white like Facebook, this play is full of gray area and that's intentional.
SFV Sun: Addressing the point about the separation of families, in this play you didn't see a border jeep rolling up and pulling kids from mother's arms, but you see a strong mother onstage who is at the border with the intention to somehow cross because her child is on the other side. She delivers a powerful line to beg the question, “Wouldn't you do the same for your child?”
Herbert Siguenza: This play is a lot more subtle than people expect from us. The humor is subtle the politics are grayer, because we don't really have the answers and we know that people [from various political spectrums] are human beings. But the fact is that people are dying in the desert, and people are suffering, and people are being divided. That's just not American, no matter how you cut it. That's just not right.
SFV Sun: Every subject you introduced in this play could have been a full play onto itself.
Herbert Siguenza: This was a hard play to produce, we had so much subject matter and we had to hone it down and just focus on the border. This was a hard birth.
SFV Sun: You could be writing every day with new material that comes up from this administration and immigration.
Herbert Siguenza: You know us — if something comes up, it will be in the play that night. That's our style. It's kind of hard not to. Our plays are not set in stone, they aren't sacred. Our plays reflect the present time, not the past.
Next week: Herbert Siguenza and Ric Salinas (both Chicanos via El Salvador) talk about the portions of the play that set the record straight that outlines the true history of MS13, the Civil War in El Salvador and it's impact on the border – which is all part of the “kitchen sink” that is all included in “Bordertown Now.”
Post-show conversations are held after each performance at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena Dates: Now Through June 24. Wednesday – Friday evenings at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets Prices start at $25 Online -- PasadenaPlayhouse.org, 626-356-7529.