A state rich in Latino and Anglo cultures, California has always been a perfect stomping ground for Herbert Siguenza, the current Playwright in Residence at the San Diego Repertory Theater.
Siguenza has a gift of melding both cultures together and reaching a diverse audience. This is seen in his plays, “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso,” “El Henry,” “Manifest Destinitis,” and “Steal Heaven.” But Siguenza is more than just a playwright; he’s a performer and painter as well.
Siguenza didn’t plan to be an actor when he was a young man. A first generation Salvadoran, he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the California College of Arts in Oakland in the 1970s. He lived in the Mission District in San Francisco and worked as a community visual artist.
In those days, the Mission District was the hub of social and artistic non-profits. It was here that he first discovered his voice as a writer and performer. After seeing Luis Valdez’s “Zoot Suit” in 1978, he became inspired to do Chicano theater, a path that eventually led him to Richard Montoya — son of legendary Chicano poet, Jose Montoya — and fellow Salvadoran, Ric Salinas. Together they formed Culture Clash in 1984.
Culture Clash was a groundbreaking comedic troupe whose biting social satire and commentary skewered everyone. They were irreverent and honest in presenting their view on society, be it Latino or Anglo. It started with their first play, “The Mission,” which told the comedic story about three out-of-work Latino actors who kidnap Julio Iglesias (played by Siguenza) and keep him hostage until they get a one time shot on national TV.
In 1989, their work took on a deeper tone when Salinas was shot at close range in a random act of violence. While Salinas was recuperating, they wrote a “Bowl of Beings” — short acts about life, death, and, in keeping with their humor, pizza.
The play was a huge success and well received. It was filmed for PBS’ Grand Performances and was aired nationally, giving them an even larger spotlight. In 1993, they were commissioned to write a play about the city of Miami and “Radio Mambo” was conceived. Three years later, they were invited to showcase scenes from “Radio Mambo” at The Gospel Coalition’s National Theater Conference in Princeton.
That earned the attention of some theatrical bigwigs, and Sam Woodhouse, founder and artistic director of the San Diego Repertory Theater, asked them to write and perform a similar piece about the San Diego-Tijuana area. This became “Bordertown,” another success.
After more than 20 years of working together, the group worked on their last collective piece, “Chavez Ravine,” a darker and more sophisticated social satire commissioned by the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles.
“Chavez Ravine” was initially the story of how the Brooklyn Dodgers left the East Coast and came to Los Angeles. It quickly turned into a more revealing story about public housing, overreaching of the press, political ambition, immigrant families being displaced, and, of course, baseball. It was a top grossing show.
Siguenza began to pursue a solo career and wrote a play about his father’s comedic hero, the Mexican actor Mario “Cantiflas” Moreno, which he performed from 2001 to 2003.
He then approached Woodhouse and Todd Salovey, the associate artistic director at the San Diego Rep, about doing a one-man show called “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso.” Siguenza had been an admirer of Picasso since he was 7 years old. At the age of 50, he felt he was ready to play him.
After two years of workshops at the Rep, the play was presented at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas. Directed by Salovey, the show was met with critical success and played at a half a dozen regional theaters. It opened at the San Diego Rep in the spring of 2010 and then again in the fall of 2013.
“A Weekend with Pablo Picasso” had a mass appeal to both Anglo and Latino audiences. What was most unique was that the multi-talented Siguenza not only played Picasso, but also employed his artistic side — making drawings on the spot during the play. His artistic renderings were displayed on the walls of the Lyceum.
His next play with cross cultural appeal was “El Henry,” Siguenza’s futuristic barrio version of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part One.” This high energy, visually stunning play was performed outside for the La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls Festival in 2014. The play included low rider classic cars, and won a Craig Noel Award for Best New Play. The following year, Siguenza went on to write and act in “Steal Heaven,” a play about 1960’s activist, Abbie Hoffman.
In 2016, Siguenza began his three-year residency at the Rep and opened its 42nd season with “Manifest Destinitis.” Reminiscent of French playwright Molière’s play, “The Imaginary Invalid,” Siguenza’s “Manifest Destinitis” is about old California and simultaneously reflects on a collective history while offering commentary on current times, especially in light of Trump’s campaign and subsequent election.
In the 2018 season, his melding of cultures will be represented in “Beachtown,” an adaption of the audience immersive play, “Beertown.” “Beachtown” will reflect a San Diego/Southern California setting with people debating what historic artifacts should go in a time capsule.
As Siguenza himself says, “I find this work exciting because there is no ‘fourth wall,’ allowing audience members to participate and lend their voice in the proceedings instead of being passive spectators in the dark.”
For Siguenza, acting and writing can also be cathartic. In his latest project, “Birthday,” Siguenza is working on his most personal and darkest piece, which also happens to be a musical. It’s about people who come back from the dead for 24 hours on their birthday.
Siguenza found out he had a son from a fling he had as a young man. The mother never told him. It wasn’t until the young man committed suicide that he was told. His son left behind two boys who only recently met their paternal grandfather, but now see him on a regular basis. In his own personal life, Siguenza has found happiness with his second wife, Samantha, and their six-year-old daughter, Belen.
Belen is most happy because her father will be voicing two characters in the upcoming Pixar movie called Coco about Dia de los Muertos. It opens in November.