From left to right, Anel Schmidt, Veronica del Cerro, Eva Tessler and Annabelle Nunez portray the women's stories.

Anna Ochoa O'Leary was just doing her job - research. But the result was much more than a published academic paper. The research on female border crossers done by the University of Arizona assistant professor in Mexican American & Raza Studies has led to a play garnering enough attention to earn a "rolling premiere" in two states and Mexico.

The Borderlands Theater production of "Arizona: No Roosters in the Desert," opening tonight, is by Kara Hartzler and is based on O'Leary's extensive research on migrant women.

"No Roosters" is about four composite characters - women crossing the Arizona desert from Mexico. The characters were drawn from more than 140 interviews conducted by O'Leary as part of her investigation of U.S. immigration enforcement agents and their interactions with female border crossers.

O'Leary won a Fulbright Garcia-Robles Award to complete her June 2007 research: "A Binational Study of Migrant Women in the Context of a U.S. Mexico Border Reproductive Health Care Continuum."

The border, O'Leary said in a recent interview, is more than just an ominous place that is depicted in media. It is a "binational, bilingual, bicultural dynamic that intersects with world views," she said. "People don't know. They see it as a line and I don't see that. I see people going back and forth, I see families going back and forth, I see people speaking two languages. I see culture."

Her fascination with that culture spurred her academic research.

"I was drawn to working with the disparities between males and females in discouraging women in seeking to fulfill their educational aspirations," O'Leary said. "The border dynamic came later."

Her drive can be traced back to the 1983 strike against Phelps Dodge Corp. She worked with the Morenci Miners Women's Auxiliary in her hometown of Clifton. The group is credited with giving the miners the impetus to stick together. That experience changed how O'Leary saw herself and sent her packing to Tucson.

"She always saw herself as the traditional mother until then," said Trudy Mills, a former women's studies professor at the University of Arizona, part-owner of Antigone Books on North Fourth Avenue and one of O'Leary's early mentors. "I think that's what kind of propelled her, being involved with the strikers. She kind of learned how women were perceived and treated and that was a real eye-opener for her.

"The community there (in Clifton) probably felt like it did in the '50s. So to step out took a lot of courage. . . . It was kind of an exciting time."

After earning her master's degree in cultural anthropology, guided by people like Mills, O'Leary's focus swung to the border and eventually to her Fulbright research and "Arizona: No Roosters in the Desert."

"Now, all of that academic work goes back into the community in an artful and academic way," O'Leary said of the play. "(It's) a witness of the inhumanity that can be around us."

From research to theater,

border story took a long trip

Bringing "Arizona: No Roosters in the Desert" to the stage was a long journey.

It began with Anna Ochoa O'Leary's research on U.S. immigration enforcement agents and their interactions with female border crossers.

The compelling stories found in that research caught the attention of Kara Hartzler, then a student at the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona. Hartzler, who also has a master's in fine arts, felt the research O'Leary conducted was ripe for a far more visual representation.

Barclay Goldsmith, the founder of Borderlands Theater, agreed and commissioned Hartzler to write the play.

In an August column in The New York Times, Hartzler wrote that she "started out with the goal that all good playwrights should have: not to bore myself."

Her mission to cap sensationalism while telling the stories of women deported while crossing the desert was one that resonated with O'Leary, who has a Mexican-born mother and a father of Mexican heritage.

The play takes its title from Luke 22:34: "And He said, 'I say to you, Peter, the rooster will not crow today until you have denied three times that you know Me.'"

The characters in the play plan to stick together, thus proving that there are "no roosters in the desert."

"Roosters" snagged a 2010 Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award, which provided funds for an extended rehearsal time with a full production team, including the playwright - that's a luxury for small theaters such as Borderlands.

The National New Play Network, a coalition of theater companies across the country dedicated to championing new works for the stage (Borderlands is a founding member), also took up the cause.

"Barclay has been talking about this production for a while," said Jason Loewith, executive director of the National New Play Network.

"It's (our) job to take that excitement and spread it out. We hope that our support is going to help make the difference between a really good production and a really great production."

And the New Play Networks' belief in the work is so strong that it has sponsored a "rolling world premiere" - the play opened Aug. 6 and is still running in Mexico City, and will open next year in Chicago. This is the first time the Network has ever included a theater outside the U.S. as part of a rolling world premiere.

All of which sits quite well with O'Leary.

"I'm very proud of this work," O'Leary said. "I'm delighted that we have achieved a fusion of science and the arts and that the information gathered through research can be made available to wider public through this very popular and creative art form."

If you go

• "Arizona: No Roosters in the Desert"

• Presented by: Borderlands Theater.

• Playwright: Kara Hartzler, based on research by Anna Ochoa O'Leary.

• When: Opens today at 7:30 p.m. Continues 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 24.

• Tickets: Opening performance with reception, $22; regular performances, $19.75, with discounts available.

• Reservations/information: 882-7406 or www.borderlands theater.org

• Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

• Cast: Annabelle Nunez, Anel Schmidt, Eva Tessler and Veronica del Cerro.

Jazmine Woodberry is a University of Arizona student who is apprenticing at the Star. Contact her at starapprentice@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.