Ah, those stinking badges

EntertainmentArts and CultureTheaterMusical TheaterMusicConcertsUnrest, Conflicts and War

I have a responsibility to my audience. Lou Dobbs has a responsibility to his. Of course, I would like to think the comparisons stop here. But, alas, we're both in the entertainment biz, and we both veer into the political.

When Culture Clash was born in 1984, we did not know who our audience would be. We had entered the rough-and-tumble world of performance art and stand-up comedy. The political Chicano Teatro Movement — a genre born of out of the rural farmworker struggle and its city cousin, the early student protests during the Vietnam War — had already seen its best, most urgent days, and that movement now left us off somewhere between the art galleries of the Mission District and the comedy clubs of the suburbs.

At first, our audiences were small and critical, a match made in Barstow (and in the late '80s, we were run out of Fresno). Happily our audience would grow throughout the decades and hair tragedies. During that time, a typical Culture Clash show might feature Herbert Siguenza in fishnet stockings, the late Jose Antonio Burciaga wielding a large and very sharp machete, while Ric Salinas and I were acrobatic altar boys, nipping off the priest's tequila bottle.

We found ourselves in far-flung places — like the time we performed for nine disgruntled, burned-out Hollywood screenwriters in Taos, N.M. I mean, that was the entire audience!

CC relocated to Los Angeles in 1992 after our salad years in the Bay Area, where we struggled to attract the same 50 people that attend every show in that region. Happily, we found a large, loving audience ready to embrace the Chicano Clowns from the North.

Soon our L.A. audience began to stretch beyond that impenetrable border to the west: La Brea Avenue! We could play UCLA one day, Cal State Northridge the next, and sneak in the back door at the Taper — all in the span of a week.

A Chicano/Latino troupe with a political agenda traversing the endless boulevards of the L.A. basin like pizza delivery boys? Yes. This is why we fell in love with our L.A. audience; this is why we feel a responsibility to them today.

Following the navel-gazing of identity politics that was a central element of Chicano Teatro, CC gleefully blasted on to new frontiers: Miami, New York, D.C., back to San Francisco, Seattle and both sides of the border. We found ourselves in places where few Chicanos lived: You didn't see many Chicanos in Amherst or the snow of UConn in 1987.

Everywhere we went, we were fascinated by the people we met; we heard voices and stories we had not heard before. How could we? We were too busy screaming, "Chicano Power!"

We gathered those stories and brought them back to an audience eager to hear them. And along the way, a funny thing happened: Our audience now looked as diverse as the people who populated our plays.

Our Chicano/Latino view widened, our lens had been pulled into sharper focus by people who had seen more than we had. Is this not the responsibility of all artists?

Back in L.A., "Chavez Ravine," a play about the ever-changing and growing neighborhoods, a city in constant flux and a Dodger Dog Girl who descends from above, proved that L.A. theater audiences would come from every corner of the city and Valley if the work appealed to them and had some relevance in their busy lives.

Our newest work, "Water & Power," is also about a growing city. I wake up at night fearful that our audience — sometimes filled with several generations from one family, feisty grandmothers as well as high schoolers (I once saw a live chicken in our audience!) — might expect a comedy from their favorite performance trio only to find a dark sojourn into the underbelly of Latino power and corruption.

"Water & Power" is, as director Lisa Peterson says, a tragedy. "Water & Power" is high-stakes theater, a drama with some humor, a departure for us. It was not written by the collective — it was written by me. It is a work very concerned with storytelling, as was "Chavez," but has added an intense layer of dramatic acting.

Have I broken a sacred public trust with Culture Clash supporters? Will subscribers head for the doors after the second Deer Dancer scene? Will Latino audiences embrace veteran stage actor Dakin Mathews as a Chicano?

It may not matter. If the story is compelling and lovely and knocks people in the goolies, they will be satisfied, regardless of the style in which we choose to tell the story.

And contrary to popular belief and endless government research, Chicanos love good acting as much as their neighbors. They proved this by going to "Nacho Libre" in droves!

Our responsibility, which director Jose Luis Valenzuela instilled in us on our first play at the Los Angeles Theater Center back in 1989, remains: "Be brilliant, mijos."

With his thick Mexican accent, he would drill this mantra into our heads night after night. A Mexican director extolling two Salvadorans and a radical Chicano to be brilliant for an audience that held white, black, brown and Asian audiences within its doors. That was the mandate then, it remains the mandate now.

"Water & Power" is my responsibility. Responsibility entwined with promises.

I have a responsibility to myself — to constantly challenge my writing; to work with the best directors, like Peterson and Valenzuela, who demand every drop of focused energy; to infuse the comedy with darkness, lyricism and poetry. Whatever it takes to tell a compelling story.

For audiences that love theater and storytelling, I feel a responsibility. For those looking for a showcase in a Fairfax Avenue cafe, chances are you probably won't see me there. At least, not this month.

I write plays — it's an ancient form, like making puppets. Sometimes I write a play for no fee or commission. It can be a thankless job, so I often find myself wondering how it is that I am strapped with a certain responsibility for every project while the better-paid sitcom writers seemingly feel none? The all-white sitcom is alive and well.

Do the writers, creators and producers of such fare feel no responsibility to reflect a world in which we all live? Conversely, do the creators of, say, the hit musical "The Drowsy Chaperone" feel a certain responsibility to their audiences? I would assume yes. But for Culture Clash and other dramatists of color, it remains a loaded and constant question. I must admit I sometimes suffer from responsibility fatigue.

Bob Dylan said it best: "Mama, take this badge off of me." As artists, we do not shirk our responsibility when removing our "badges"; we just put them down long enough to delve deeper into our work and, at the other end, find something of deeper meaning for more people. Sometimes putting responsibility down for a moment frees us up.

There are times in my weakness I must confess a desire to write show tunes and musicals. I imagine a Culture Clash headquarters, crowded with orchestras and chorus girls. In that milieu, I would certainly be free from my "responsibility" to our audience.

But then again, I would want to write a politically charged musical satire about a certain news anchorman. You got it: "Lou Dobbs — The Musical!" Here we go again.

Montoya is a founding member of Culture Clash and a member of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Commission. Send comments to calendar.letters@latimes.com.

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