AmeriCCan Splendor

Last week, the Alley Theatre brought the California-based performance team Culture Clash to town to perform their wicked-funny, deliriously irreverent celebration of American culture. And the usually hushed auditorium of one of H-town's fanciest venues sizzled with laughter and energy.

Founded by Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Sigüenza in 1984, Culture Clash has made a name for itself with its blend of performance and sociology. Its players have searched the corners of the United States to find interview subjects and brought their stories into the onstage light. Last week's show, Culture Clash in AmeriCCa, features everyone from an angry white Vietnam vet to a deliriously happy transgendered Latina to a modest Muslim taxi driver who wants everyone as a friend.

Told mostly in short scenes on an empty stage, the show skips around the borderlands of America, giving voices to the folks living there. Their sexual identities, experiences as immigrants, brushes with racism and joys and sorrows as Americans all get stage time.

What keeps these short, mostly comic pieces from devolving into embarrassing stereotypes is the astonishing talent of the performers. They morph instantaneously from Boston Irish working men to middle-aged-ex-hippie-pot-smoking ladies. Voice, body, hands -- everything changes in the blink of an eye.

But just as important as their talent is the palatable goodwill these performers bring to the stage. Montoya, Salinas and Sigüenza (who wowed Houstonians in the equally fantastic ¡Cantinflas!) clearly adore their characters. The show exudes a big joy that sometimes flirts with the sentimental, but it always manages to swing back to a deeper, more complicated statement about American culture.

The strongest scenes often feature all three performers, such as the one that introduces us to Miami demolition company owners Todd (Sigüenza) and Francis (Salinas). This one uses the actual interview format -- some are more like monologues or sketch comedy -- and brings their talk with Culture Clash to sparkling life. Montoya carries a tape deck and sits on the stage floor as he listens to Todd and Francis babble on about their lives.

The two make an odd couple. He's a blond dude with a decidedly beach-bum twang. Francis is a black-haired mousy "cubana" who keeps the business going. They talk over and under each other about their cultural differences. Her family's always there; he talks to his every few weeks. But the scene gets really interesting when we start to observe what the two seeming opposites have in common. Neither sees any value in restoring the old buildings in Miami, and they can't wait to get in and do some demolishing. And both admit to dumping trash in the Everglades. The couple is wonderfully likable and horrible at once -- they are, in short, utterly human.

Also powerful is a dark montage featuring Montoya as the Vietnam vet, who moves to Tijuana because he doesn't like the direction in which America is headed. He's antiwar, hates racism and prefers to live on the other side of the border. In sharp contrast, across the stage are two newly sworn-in citizens. An African (Sigüenza) and a Filipino (Salinas) talk about their new country with reverence and joy. The two scenes come together to reveal a complex nation, full of paradox and deep sadness.

And then there are the three inmates. They're an enraged trio who disparage an America that's given them zero chance to carve out a dream for themselves here. The only place where they feel at home is in prison.

There are many breezy moments in the show as well. At one point Salinas argues that you can tell where a Latino is from simply by watching him dance the salsa, showing us what he means in a hysterical demonstration. And an Asian bad boy shows up to talk about how he only hangs out with other Asians and to answer his pager, which is constantly "blowing up like a motherfucker."

But Sigüenza's monologue as a fabulous transgendered free spirit just about walks off with the show. She gleefully tells us all about her boyfriend, her shady past and the $50,000 "pussy" she'll soon be getting. The outrageous monologue is breathtaking both for the information it offers -- we get a terrific lesson in exactly how the genital switch is done -- and for its huge heart. This is a woman who has worked hard to get where she is, and she's ready to crow about it.

From the chemistry of these scenes comes a view of America that's as rich and wonderful as the land itself. Anyone who missed Culture Clash should take action. Beg the Alley to bring them back.

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Lee Williams