By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith / May 2006 issue of Socialist Action newspaper
In March, Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, in partnership with Berkeley-based ZPI (Zorro Productions, Inc.), presented Culture Clash’s world premiere of their latest play, “Zorro in Hell,” directed by Tony Taccone. It is a Latino look behind the mask of this Irish-American concoction of a mainstream legend, and asks why Zorro, the popular, early-California Robin Hood, has endured for over three-quarters of a century.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2004, the Hispanic population of California was 32.4 percent and growing. Culture Clash’s performances, which attract large, cross-cultural audiences, include bitingly clever characterizations, humor and wit, along with a modicum of slapstick to address the many barriers and prejudices the Hispanic community faces each day.
“Zorro in Hell” illustrates past and current political ramifications affecting Spanish-speaking inheritors of the Spanish conquest of the indigenous peoples in lands now known as Mexico, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, and Texas. Their work also touches on the more recent Latino diaspora to New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami, and to the agricultural fields not only of California but all over the United States.
In the past, Culture Clash and its founders—Richard Montoya, Ric Salina, and Herbert Siguenza—have relied on short sketches and borderline stereotypes to get their messages across. Now, “Zorro in Hell” hangs together from beginning to end, hinging on the character of a writer doing research for a book on the history of California and attempting to debunk the myth of Zorro.
As Culture Clash states in the program notes: “We simply could not resist the Zorro legend, though we tried at least once. But in there somewhere, in all those photos from the forties and fifties of pudgy little white kids trying with all their might to be Zorro, something touched us, and reminded us that we too taped chalk to the end of sticks as we tried to make Zs on the sidewalk. The cynic in us wants to debunk, and we go about the business of that with fervor—but we also reveal the redemptive power of this hero who was based on true California Poet Bandits and dared to fight the tightening noose around their brown necks.”
“Zorro in Hell” spoofs homeland security in the West, where white America deals with Mexican immigration, Indian gambling, militia at the border, more prisons (with a growing Latino population) than schools, and an Austrian-born governor (one of the actors in a Schwarzenegger mask, driving a mock-up Hummer).
The play also sends up stereotypes such as the “Lazy Mexican” (a seated, hunched-over figure wrapped in a serape, a huge sombrero pulled down over his face, leaning against a cactus) and wealthy, land-owning, early 20th century Mexicans in their lavishly embroidered, velvet bolero jackets, tight pants, and affected mannerisms.
Culture Clash got its start in San Francisco’s largely Hispanic Mission District. Having an affinity for California added to their depictions of historical figures such as the bandito Joaqin Murrieta, who was hanged and his head preserved in whisky; and Father Junipero Serra, who egregiously exploited California Indians as slaves to build Catholic missions along the El Camino Real.
Throughout, the cast makes many philosophical (Nietzsche, in particular), literary, and pop-culture references special to California and the Latino community, which may be lost on some audiences. The play was enhanced by full-screen depictions of early Zorro black-and-white film and TV clips; some showing the hero emancipating indigenous Californians.
Near the play’s end, the writer becomes Zorro. Scaling a second-tier, side balcony, cape flying, brandishing his sword, he exhorts the audience to “rise up,” and stage a Million Masked Man March on Sacramento, yelling, “¡Todos somos Zorro!”
The character of Zorro—the wealthy nobleman, Diego de la Vega—was created in 1919, ironically, by Irish-American Johnston McCulley in his novel, “The Curse of Capistrano.” Since then, Zorro has been featured in countless domestic and foreign films, beginning in 1920, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., to 1995 when Antonio Banderas took the role in “The Mask of Zorro.” In between, there was a popular television series, starring Guy Williams as Zorro, inspiring millions of kids of all stripes to ape their hero.
Besides Culture Clash’s homage to the legend, novelist Isabel Allende has signed on as producer for The Gipsy Kings’ upcoming 2007 musical, crafted from her own recently published Zorro novel. Culture Clash’s second world premiere in six months is “Water and Power,” which will premiere at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum in August.