It could have gone so wrong.
Borderlands Theater’s season opener, “Más” is a docudrama about the dismantling of Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program.
It had the potential to be dry, didactic, dreary.
Instead, the Milta Ortiz play is riveting, moving, nuanced.
That’s impressive considering that Ortiz didn’t pull any of the dialogue or situations from her imagination — she pulled from personal and media interviews, other writings, and court documents.
The scene is a temescalli — a sweat lodge — a cleansing ritual in the Mexican and other cultures. In the center fire are book-stones, representing books that had been banned in the MAS program.
When the fire is lit, we are thrust back into the MAS controversy and the intents of the teachers, the objections of conservative elements, and its impact on students.
“Our charge was a responsibility to instill hope,” says one teacher.
“MAS transformed my life, in some ways saved me as a human,” says a student.
“It’s all about an oppressor, someone who is the enemy, no love here at all,” wrote Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal in an anonymous blog about the program. “No heroes who create wealth like in America, like Steve Jobs. Just oppressors.”
Ortiz has captured the soul of the movement, what gave it its power — knowledge, learning, awakenings — and what served as its destruction — divisiveness within the ranks, disagreement on how to reach its goals, ignorance, and the passage in 2010 of Arizona House Bill 2281, which effectively banned the MAS program.
What’s particularly impressive is that Ortiz was intent on making all characters full — which meant giving dimensions to the conservative voices. That was not easy — the conservative voices did not want to talk to her, so her only recourse was to turn to court documents and news stories.
One of those voices belonged to Tom Horne, the state’s superintendent of education at the beginning of this tumultuous time and later Arizona’s attorney general:
“When I was in high school I participated in the march on Washington, where Martin Luther King said he wanted his son to be judged on the quality of his character and not the color of his skin,” Horne said, and says in the play. “And I’m still fighting for that now, against what I believe to be something that is very wrong.”
Less eloquent is Huppenthal, who succeeded Horne as the state’s head of education comes off as a bit cartoonish, which makes sense — many of his actions were cartoonish.
The play, directed with balance and insight by Borderlands’ new producing director Marc David Pinate, is steeped in the Mexican culture and vibrates with ritual, poetry and passion.
Four dancers — Yvonne Montoya, Mario Ortiz, Eliza Butler and Daymeon L. Rembert — represent the Mexican deities of life’s natural forces, and the play is broken up in sections each symbolizes — reflection and reconciliation, knowledge, will and transformation.
The ensemble worked together to bring us a story that flowed and felt well lived in. The cast of eight — Natalia Alvarado, Perla Vanesa Barraza, Angelina Duarte, Enrique Garcia, Roberto Garcia, Anabel Nuñez, Luke Salcido and Nicolas Valdez — play the multitude of characters in this story with distinction and commitment.
This play isn’t perfect. It can confuse at times, it felt long at moments. But it does what theater can do best: provoke, enlighten and lead us to hope.