Richard Montoya as The Writerin Anthems(Photo: Scott Suchman)
Richard Montoya as The Writer
in Anthems
(Photo: Scott Suchman)
There's a panda out there. At least we think it's Tian Tian -- or is it a panda-masked man decked out in black jacket and white slacks? Seated on a riser at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater in Washington, D.C., hunched over, and puffing away -- a Rodinesque, chain-smoking cigarette-flicker -- Panda Guy has a bunch of things to bitch about, including the local mayoralty contest and his own GS-10 government salary ranking. "All the reptiles are GS-15s and above," he rails, then waits for the double-entendre to register. ("It's working its way around the balcony.") He also objects to conditions at the National Zoo -- the fact that he has to "make a baby" with 300 gawkers on hand. And he bemoans the watchful federal eye. ("Stay with me -- we're about to lose our funding.")

Anthems: Culture Clash in the District is 90 intermissionless minutes of insights into the staccato rhythms of the nation's capital as observed -- in a show that clearly is updated regularly -- by Culture Clash, the madcap yet worldly wise Los Angeles-based theatrical trio of which two members, Richard Montoya and Ric Salinas, are present here.

It's been hard to miss this Latino troupe (its third member is Herbert Siguenza) since it sprouted in 1984. The guys, joined by an acting ensemble, seem to have been everywhere: movies, public broadcasting, network and cable TV variety shows, campuses, comedy nightclubs, even within the pages of a book. They've been at Arena before, skewering Miami's diversity in Radio Mambo; next spring, they'll be taking on L.A.'s own Chavez Ravine sector. For now, in the aftermath of September 11, they've turned their sights on Washington -- one of the focal points of last year's horror -- to uncover the irony and humor of this multiracial, multiethnic, multipurpose burg.

Culture Clash fits wonderfully into the vision of Arena's artistic director, Molly Smith. During her half-decade tenure, Smith has demonstrated in her show selections a keen cognizance of the demographics at play in the District of Columbia. This season certainly underscores that: It includes August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Wendy Wasserstein's politically charged An American Daughter, and the Fats Waller musical Ain't Misbehavin', along with works of Molière and Lanford Wilson and a rare Arena staging of a musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific.

It's evident from audiences reaction that the season opener is hitting home. Anthems is as timely as its passing references to the Al Qaeda arrests near Buffalo and the deaths of Lionel Hampton and Baltimore football hero Johnny Unitas and as universal as its hushed, ever-so compassionate focus on the microcosmic impact on one family of the attack on the Pentagon. Montoya's quest for anthems begins with his encounter with a grief counselor at LAX shortly after the events of September 11, 2001. This professional, casting his eyes both on the city and the trauma, extols the virtues of the District, urging the chronicler to view its music as "continuous, not chaotic."

(l-r) Bill Grimmette, Ricardo Salinas, Shona Tucker, and Richard Montoya in Anthems
(Photo: Scott Suchman)
(l-r) Bill Grimmette, Ricardo Salinas,
Shona Tucker, and Richard Montoya in Anthems
(Photo: Scott Suchman)
Acted out by the nine chameleons in the cast (including Montoya and Salinas), the show embraces a Jordanian cabbie, a local electric company worker, postal employees, patrons of a fundraising event at the zoo, a newly-arrived Salvadorian waiter who's struck by the populace he encounters ("Where are the gringos?"), and even the much-beloved former parking lot attendant at Arena Stage. As strobes flash, the locales fly by -- from a Washington Metro station to the Lincoln Memorial to the multicultural inner city neighborhoods and on to the reception-free Southwest, where cell phones frustratingly slip into silence. And we slip back into history, we brush against musical personalities inexorably linked to Washington, from Marian Anderson and Billie Holiday to Sweet Honey in the Rock and the tragic Eva Cassidy.

Ultimately, there is rhythm and meaning to be found within Culture Clash's cacophony. As for the city's anthem, it is, as the grief counselor says, one of continuity dappled with change. Jarring though it may be at one moment or another, there is a comfort in that constant frenzy. Washingtonians know this -- and if Anthems: Culture Clash in the District is destined to have an extended life, others are about to discover it.