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Bordertown Now Shows Just How Far We Haven't Come

The famed Latino theater troupe Culture Clash revisits their examination of the US-Mexican border.

Sabina Zúñiga Varela in Culture Clash's Bordertown Now, directed by Diane Rodriguez, at Pasadena Playhouse.
(© Philicia Endelman)

Twenty years ago, Culture Clash presented Bordertown Now, which took a look at the percolating tension between the US government and undocumented Mexican immigrants crossing the border. In the last few years, this situation has only become more of a powder keg as the current administration has made building a wall between the two countries a top priority. Culture Clash is now readdressing the border situation from a Chicano point of view in Bordertown Now at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Based on interviews and conversations with members from all sides of the issues, Bordertown Now spotlights the thoughts, fears, and prejudices that have fostered hostility and cost innocent lives. The three members of Culture Clash who wrote the revised piece — Ricardo Salinas, Herbert Sigüenza, and Richard J. Montoya — join Sabina Zúñiga Varela in portraying all the roles. In the opening scene, two interviewers (Salinas and Montoya) encounter a volunteer border patrol agent (Sigüenza) who pulls a gun and threatens their lives, even though both men are documented American citizens. After confirming their status, they turn their camera on the agent, a man they tag a vigilante, to try and suss out his motivations. Also profiled is US Senate candidate Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff recently pardoned by President Donald Trump for criminal contempt of court; Kat, an American-born human rights worker; and Ozzie, a writer on the border beat for the San Diego Tribune who has reported on police brutality.

Because lives and livelihoods are at stake, Culture Clash has chosen to return to this vital issue, which would have been more penetrating with more nuanced and layered writing. The dialogue (most of which comes from recorded conversations with the subjects) is so preachy that it has the potential to even turn off people who are firmly on their side. Part of Culture Clash's signature style is to add a dash of zaniness to their work, but here it becomes counterproductive. When the characters break out into a dance, the intention is to break the ice, but instead it weakens the message.

The ensemble is strong. Montoya shines as Arpaio. He paces like a cornered animal while slipping his way around piercing questions. He twists intentions to frame himself as a victim, with the interviewer being the perpetrator. In a later scene, he rambles like Richard Nixon at his most paranoid. Sigüenza, who cowrote the script, seemed unfocused at the performance I attended, tripping over dialogue and often forgetting his lines. His characterizations, however, were solid and thought out. Salinas best lends his physical humor in the roles of the interviewer fighting to not get shot by the Rambo-esque border guard, and as an El Salvadoran lecturing on the circular cluster-fail that started in Ronald Reagan's era and led to heavily armed anti-American gangs like MS-13. Zúñiga Varela brings passion, anger, and understanding to her roles of the journalist, the human rights worker, and the border angel.

Satire is a tricky dish to serve. Like a soufflé, it needs precision and a balance of ingredients, or it collapses under its own weight. The motives behind Culture Clash's Bordertown Now are pure and relevant. But the execution fails to illuminate the perspective of those who are antagonistic or even uneducated about the failed diplomacy that has led two neighboring countries to completely break down.