If Saturday night's performance of "Califas," a multimedia look at life in the Mexican-American border region, left the audience at the Newport Harbor Art Museum perplexed and frustrated, then the work's creators consider it a success.
"The audience is meant to undergo a disorientation, a cultural rupture, so that they can see the experience we get living on the border," said Guillermo Gomez-Pena, who along with Emily Hicks wrote, directed and performed in "Califas."
Gomez-Pena, who was born and raised in Mexico City, and Hicks, a native of San Francisco, used a sound track of bilingual poetry and music, color slides, dance and dialogue to explore border stereotypes, U.S.-Mexico relations and the cultural clash on the border.
"We are living in the ruins of many cultures, and (through 'Califas') we are trying to make sense of those cultures," Gomez-Pena said.
The 45-minute performance of "Califas"--Chicano slang for California--was sponsored by the museum as part of California Institute of the Arts' "Skeptical Beliefs" exhibition. The performance attracted about 50 people.
Gomez-Pena, a graduate of CalArts in Valencia, and Hicks, who in 1983 co-founded the WERKPLACE nonprofit center for art research, met and began working together two years ago in San Diego. They edit a San Diego-based journal called "The Broken Line," which focuses on the art and literature in the border region.
"Califas" began last May as an interdisciplinary arts project at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego. Since then it has been performed in theaters and museums in Mexico and the United States. The next performance is scheduled in March at Cornell University.
"Califas" has been particularly well received in communities near the border and in barrios, where "people are bicultural, not monocultural," Gomez-Pena said.
"It makes more sense to someone living in San Diego or Los Angeles than it would to someone living far from the border," he said.
Hicks added: "Different people see different images in the performance. Some see the sexual imagery, some see the Spanish-English boundary dispute."
The actors used dialogue and movement to express the clash of cultures and languages near the border, but other concepts were illustrated with slides projected on a screen above the stage.
At one point a photograph of rock singer Madonna was followed by the image of the Virgin Mary. Later a slide was shown of a wooden Aztec statue superimposed with the head of President Reagan. At another point, a slide of an Aztec pyramid was superimposed over a modern city.
The dialogue switched from English to Spanish to an Indian dialect to a mixture of all three "to represent our cultural experience," Gomez-Pena said. "We are children of a cultural crisis."
There is no character development and no plot in "Califas," Gomez-Pena said, because he believes that conventional dramatic theater or music could not convey to audiences the cultural rupture experienced on the border.
In one of the few soliloquies that did not switch languages, Gomez-Pena portrays a stereotyped Mexican (he holds a bottle in one hand and a knife in the other).
"Mexico is sinking and the U.S. is on fire and we are all getting burnt," he said. "We are just a bunch of burning myths. . . .
"But what if suddenly the continent turned upside down? What if the U.S. was Mexico? What if 200,000 Anglo-Saxons were to cross the border each month and work as gardeners, waiters, musicians, bouncers, movie extras, syndicated cartoonists, chauffeurs, featherweight boxers, fruit pickers and anonymous poets? What if they were called WASP-anos, WASP-itos WASP-eros or WASP-backs?"
In another scene, a man wearing a wrestling mask and a flowery piece of cloth around his body let himself be stepped on by a woman with spiked hair who wore a traditional Spanish dress. Gomez-Pena explained after the show that the woman represented a "punked-out mother Spain," while the man represented the mythological Mexican.
The most important aspect of the performance is the use of juxtaposition, said Gomez-Pena, who in 1981 founded the San Diego-based Poyesis Genetica Troupe, a multimedia performance project that focuses on cultural and political relations between Latin America and the United States.