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Getting Fired Up Over Miami's Topical Heat

L.A.-based Culture Clash tapped into Florida's immigrant pulse for the upcoming 'Radio Mambo,' but a lot hit close to home.

February 25, 1996|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

The three Chicano satirists and pranksters who make up Culture Clash have eliminated most of the satire and pranks from their upcoming show. And they aren't dwelling on Chicano themes.

They will, however, offer a lot of culture clash. In fact, more cultures clash in "Radio Mambo: Culture Clash Invades Miami," opening next Sunday at the Tamarind Theatre in Hollywood and then again next summer at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, than in any of the group's other work.

The subject is Miami. It's where Cubans, white Southerners, African Americans, Jewish emigres from the North, Haitians and Bahamians meet. And it's where the Culture Clashers--Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza--spent weeks interviewing people from all of these groups and others in preparation for "Radio Mambo."

Interviewing? As a theatrical technique, it's associated with Anna Deavere Smith of "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" and "Fires in the Mirror" fame, not with the three rowdies whose brand of Chicano comedy attracted young hipsters to Los Angeles Theatre Center in the late '80s, to a Fox TV sketch comedy series in 1993 and to the Mark Taper Forum for "Carpa Clash" later that year.

"When I first saw Anna Deavere Smith, I said, 'We'd never do this,' " Siguenza recalled. "It's too laid-back."

But the group doesn't mind overturning their fans'--or their own--expectations. "We were slaves to our own style and expectations of our audience," Siguenza said. "They expect something hilarious and Chicano-centric. This is the opposite."

In a style similar to Smith's, Culture Clash conducted about 75 interviews of Miamians, arranged by the Miami Light Project, the arts presenter that commissioned the work. Then the three Californians re-created excerpts from these interviews for the stage, playing all the parts themselves.

The show initially was presented in Miami in November 1994--but only for three performances, generally well received. "By the third night, we had it down. And we knew we had to do it again," Salinas said. What better town than L.A., the trio's home and a well-known caldron of clashing cultures itself? "The parallels to L.A. are amazing."

Of course, differences exist too. Siguenza found "a lot of hope" in Miami, "a feeling that when Fidel [Castro] falls, there will be tremendous economic opportunity." In L.A., by contrast, "I feel it's dying. I don't see horizons."

Montoya, however, didn't find as much hope in Miami as his colleague did. Like L.A., he said, "Miami is very much a city divided by geography. People are not listening to each other." However, Montoya said there is a big difference in the welcome given to immigrants in the two areas ("there they have a parade").

He also found a difference of timing between the two cities. Smith put together her "Twilight" after "the [L.A.] explosion. But [in Miami] we felt we were in the midst of it--or just before it." While the group was there, Haiti was invaded. Since then, Americans won new rights to travel to Cuba. And "if something happens to Fidel, we'll have to change the piece tomorrow," Montoya said.

The piece already has changed considerably. The L.A. version, which will move to INTAR in New York before going on to South Coast next summer, is definitely not the same show Miami saw. For L.A., Culture Clash brought in a new director, performance artist Roger Guenveur Smith ("Inside the Creole Mafia," "A Huey P. Newton Story"), to take over the reins from the group's longtime mentor Jose Luis Valenzuela. Smith is "more of a colleague, in the same boat we are," Siguenza said. "It was time for a change." Valenzuela also said he foresaw difficulties in recreating the show in a smaller venue.

Another big change is in the script. At least from the vantage point of an interview two weeks before the show was scheduled to open, "a classic Culture Clash paper-thin plot" (in Montoya's words) that was pasted onto the interview material for Miami was being cut.

In that now-scrapped plot, Siguenza--playing himself--was held hostage in the fictional Miami radio station that forms the framework for the show, simply because he made a couple of remarks about how much he learned on a trip to Cuba and how Chicano activists were inspired by the Cuban revolution--sentiments that didn't go over well with the Cuban emigres who ran the station.

"It was a device that worked there," Montoya said. But here, in a much smaller theater, director Smith "is allowing the monologues to breathe. We're challenging ourselves not to be whores for the yuks. We're finding the transition points in how [the interview subjects] are connected," and "this connective tissue is much stronger than the forced plot we came up with."

"Without having Culture Clash in the story line, we can focus on the [other] people," Salinas said. Which is, in fact, what the group did when they were in Miami, home to very few Chicanos.

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