The first of a two-part interview with the influential Culture Clash teatrista
By Brent E. Beltrán
I’ve had the honor to work within the Chicano arts and culture community for over fifteen years as a publisher, curator, writer, organizer, volunteer and patron. I’ve met many wonderful and talented artists throughout this time.
One of them, Herbert Siguenza, gave me a call the other day and said he and his three year-old daughter Belen were across the street from my apartment to get a paleta from Tocumbo Ice Cream. He wanted to know if my son Dino and I were available to join them. Never wanting to miss out on a good conversation Dino and I decided to go meet up with them.
When we arrived Belen was splashing about in the Mercado del Barrio fountain and Dino quickly joined her. After the children got soaked we walked over to Tocumbo’s.
Since I had been meaning to interview Herbert regarding his new play, El Henry, I decided on the spot to interview him right outside the ice cream parlor. I opened my Voice Memos app on my iPhone and starting asking questions as Herbert happily slurped throughout the interview on his mango and chile paleta.
This is the first of two parts. Minor editing was done to help the interview flow.
Brent E. Beltrán: I’m sitting here with Herbert Siguenza of Culture Clash, I guess he’s of his own fame now, not just Culture Clash fame. You’ve branched out and stepped out into the solo world numerous times.
Herbert Siguenza: That’s right!
BEB: What was the genesis behind El Henry? What was the reason behind creating this piece?
HS: I wanted to write Shakespeare for the 21st century. Because I don’t believe Shakespeare should be performed in it’s museum form. Even though I’ve been in the theatre arts for over thirty years I’ve never done Shakespeare. I’ve always found it difficult. Not only for me as an actor to understand but I think it’s very difficult for contemporary audiences to understand it unless you’re a scholar or something. So it becomes a really elitist form of art. I think his stories are great and the concepts are good. The themes are great. They’re still universal. So I basically took one of his history plays and put it into a new contemporary context into a barrio world. In this case a sci-fi, futuristic, post-apocalyptic future. [He chuckles] And it works really well because the themes of loyalty, family, honor these are themes that are in the original play. And I didn’t change any of the storyline. They still work. They work with Chicano gangs. The English kings and Chicano gangs are pretty much the same. [More chuckles]
BEB: What does El Henry mean to you?
HS: To me El Henry is a throwback. It’s going back to basics. Going back to teatro. I think it feels to me like an old Teatro Campesino play or a [San Francisco] Mime Troupe play. I’m really proud of the fact that it has those qualities. It reminds me this is why I do theater.
BEB: Why was it decided to create the setting here in San Diego?
HS: I think geographically we’re really in an interesting place. I went to Tijuana the other day and just the whole concept of the border is amazing to me. In the future I imagine this world without a border. It’s dissolved for economic reasons. California kind of reverts back to Mexico in a sense. There’s so much Raza in California the border gets blurred. In my story there’s so much Raza the Anglo citizenship leaves [Chuckles] because they just can’t deal with so many Raza so they form their own country east of the Rockies. [Chuckles]
BEB: The brown apocalypse.
HS: [More chuckles] Yeah. Which for some people it’s a real scare. That’s why you see these guys brandishing guns. These laws that are taking place in Arizona. It’s just a reaction of the brown mass that they see. The impending future, the inevitable future.
BEB: The Valdez brothers [Kinan and Lakin] are in the play.
HS: Yes. I’m really happy about that.
BEB: They’re Chicano theater royalty. How is it being somebody who kind of not necessarily came under Luis Valdez but came after Luis Valdez as far theater goes…
HS: Under and after, because I did work with Teatro Campesino for a while in my early years.
BEB: It’s kind of full circle now with his children working with you.
HS: Yes. And they are royalty. I wanted to get the brothers to have a final showdown in the play. They’re very good actors. And they know how to do street theater. That’s the kind of actors I kind of needed were guys that knew how to do this type of theater. I’m really proud of the fact twelve actors are all local. The only ones outside are the Valdez brothers.
BEB: Your relationship to San Diego has been built over many years, your connection to The Rep, Sam Woodhouse, La Jolla Playhouse. What are your personal feelings about this town, working in this town and living here the past year or so?
HS: It’s a great town. I think it has really changed when we first came here in the nineties to do an investigation. We did a play called Bordertown. And it still felt like a bordertown to me back then. It wasn’t as cosmopolitan. I really feel this city has gotten a lot of respect and has grown a lot culturally. The theater scene here is really vibrant. The theaters here are very collaborative. El Henry is being produced by two major theaters so that’s really great. The Latino thing is starting. I was instrumental in creating a little movement with Amigos del Rep. They’re functioning without me now and that’s great. They’re doing readings every month and other cultural events. And a lot of these people are getting cast in shows now because they are being seen. And I think that was one of my goals, to show San Diego theaters that there is Latino talent, there are Latino actors out in San Diego. They just need a break. They need to be seen. They weren’t given a break. Casting directors were looking to LA for Latino actors when they’re right here.
BEB: You’ve been kind of instrumental in this resurgence in Chicano Latino theater in San Diego. In the seventies there were numerous groups.
HS: There’s another guy named Samuel Valdez that is creating another group out of Centro [Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park]. So there’s an energy. I think Amigos will eventually become a theater somewhere, have their own home. That’s what I hope anyway.
BEB: What was the genesis of that? Cause here’s somebody who’s not Latino, who’s kind of outside the realm of the Chicano Movement aesthetic that you guys have been really influential in. How did it come to that? Creating something on him?
HS: It really wasn’t my idea. It was Todd Salovey’s idea who runs the San Diego Jewish Arts Festival every year. He just said “Why don’t you try do a piece on Abbie Hoffman?” Who was Jewish. I didn’t take it serious. From what I remember of Abbie Hoffman he was kind of the clown prince of the Left. I didn’t take him seriously. Nobody did really. The more I read about him, the more I found out about his life, the more respect I gained and the more in awe I was of his politics and his philosophy which was using humor, theatrics and politics. Kind of like what I’ve been doing all along anyway. So I really started feeling an affinity for him and started writing a play about his philosophy of art and politics and how art and politics were such an integral part of the sixties and seventies. That’s where the Chicano Movement came about, the Black Panther movement, all these movements the politics and the art were really connected. And I don’t see that happening now. I wanted to see what would happen if Abbie Hoffman was in a new context. Would that philosophy work now or not? And what is the philosophy of the new Left? The whole play is about the contrast between the old Left and the new Left. And how we can find a common ground to make revolution, to get ahead because the revolution was not completed. Let’s put it that way, in the sixties and seventies. We can safely say it was not completed and in fact the Right has won. At least advanced more than the left, I think. If we really want to make a change we’re gonna have to do something pretty drastic. We’re gonna have to go back to those drastic, kind of theatrical, humorous happenings that Abbie Hoffman was doing back in the sixties. It’s gonna have to get back to that.
BEB: A lot of the gains that were made during the sixties, be it Affirmative Action, bilingual education, numerous other things that are relevant to the Latino community are being…
HS: Getting reversed.
BEB: …reversed. Being pulled back.
HS: Real dangerous.
BEB: I think it’s needed that there is some kind of new theater movement, new arts movement, new activist movement to kind of take back those issues.
HS: That’s what the play is about. I don’t have solutions. I think it’s just going to be a good conversation piece. After the play people are going to discuss these issues.
BEB: Is it a one man show?
HS: No it’s three people. It’s me as Abbie Hoffman. There’s an Iraqi woman vet, who is lesbian and an activist. She has all those things going on. And another male that is going to play all the mentors in heaven. Abbie Hoffman will rely on mentors to train her. The premise of the play is that Abbie Hoffman is kind of the St. Peter of radicals. As radicals die they go to heaven and Abbie Hoffman vets them to see if they’re worthy to get retrained and go back to earth to wreak more lefty havoc.
I believe that Herbert Siguenza is definitely worthy of wreaking more havoc within the theatrical world. Stay tuned for Part II where we discuss the 30th anniversary of Culture Clash, him being a political writer, non-Chicano perceptions of his and Culture Clash’s work, his legacy as a teatrista and what he would say to aspiring Latina/o playwrights.