Filler Zapatista Extravaganza

By Margaret Regan

THE YEAR 1994 dawned in Mexico full of contradiction. At a glittering resort in Oaxaca, President Carlos Salinas gleefully toasted the New Year's birth of NAFTA, hobnobbing with reps of the multinational corporations who expected to make a killing under the newly relaxed rules of trade. Deep in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas, the nation's southernmost state, a band of impoverished Indian campesinos were optimistic for reasons very different from Salinas'. Weary of the routine, wholesale theft of their lands by the corporations and wealthy cattle barons--who were aided and abetted in their crimes by a murderous army--the Indians rose up in armed rebellion and marched into the town of San Cristobal on New Year's Day.

13 Days, 13 Días: The Zapatista Uprising in Chiapas is a sweeping new play that chronicles the bloody beginnings of a peasant movement for justice that still continues. A co-production of the politically oriented San Francisco Mime Troupe, Tucson's Borderlands Theater and the Pima Community College Drama Department, 13 Days is a multimedia extravaganza that brings together actual television news clips, slides, taped voiceovers, music and even E-Mail to the more conventional acting, dancing and elaborate moving stage sets.

The multimedia onslaught is not beside the point. The Zapatistas, writes director Daniel Chumley, of San Francisco Mime, in a program note, are "the first indigenous revolutionaries to have a home page." And television news covered the Mexican government's knee-jerk bombing of villages during the early days of the rebellion. The play suggests this "world is watching" phenomenon helped steer Salinas to the negotiating table far sooner than expected. Within 13 days, and hundreds of deaths after New Year's dawned, a ceasefire was declared.

The indiscriminate killing of Indians, broadcast worldwide, was hardly a good advertisement for the spanking-new NAFTA treaty. In the play, the irritated American ambassador, played by local actor Tim Janes, confronts Salinas (Martin Chandler), who's been bandying about the false notion of foreign agitators at work. Bomb-happy leaders can no longer rely on the old Cold War, one-size-fits-all justifications for slaughter, the ambassador says. "Nowadays," he adds ruefully, "blowing up villages and killing civilians just looks like blowing up villages and killing civilians."

Chilling stuff, but the ambitious script is an unabashedly political polemic in favor of the rebels. It was penned by three Tucsonans--UA anthropology prof Daniel Nugent, who has written scholarly studies about Mexican Indians and rebellions, choreographer Eva Tessler of Zenith Dance Collective and Paula Loera, a political activist who works with a Chiapas support group--and Joan Holden of the mime troupe. The authorial team considers the play still a work in progress, and they expect to make some revisions before it travels next winter.

What they have is already quite good, at times inspiring and certainly worth seeing. They've wisely tried to emphasize the theatricality of the experience--the set and staging and music are marvelous--while avoiding for the most part leaden political diatribes. They've even injected some comic Latin American magical realism into the play. Emiliano Zapata, the peasant hero of the 1910 Mexican Revolution whose name has been invoked by the 1990s rebels, presides over the proceedings like a resurrected saint.

Zapata is played to comic perfection by Adan Sanchez, an Actors' Equity member from New Mexico who also does a wonderful turn as the complex Colonel Menchaca. Michael Rabago, a Tucson actor, does an excellent job as the sergeant, who admires the cojones of the rebels but thinks they should "get over" being Indians and join the Army. Local actor Yolanda Hovey, too, is moving as Eulalia, an Indian woman whose main concern until now has been selling her jalapeños and seeing her brilliant daughter get ahead in life. Her evolution into somebody who wants to work to make life better for everyone--nudged a bit by "Santo Emiliano"--is at the heart of the play.

None of these pivotal figures is stereotyped; their complex portraits are wonderfully drawn. But sometimes this ambitious play feels a bit like one of those cast-of-thousands movies. There are more than two dozen characters. There's a complicated and slightly nasty subplot about a Phoenix Anglo, the "queen of consumerism," who likes to shop 'til she drops. A priest shows up a few times, but we don't really understand what he's up to. A scene in which a female Zapatista writes down the political desires of Indian women--the right not to be beaten, the right to decide how many children they want--while historically accurate, is just plain forced. When Zapata gives the audience a history lesson, complete with slides of revolutionary leaders, well, our heads begin to spin.

Part of the problem is the largeness of the authors' ambition. They're hoping, quite admirably, to awaken lethargic Americans to the very real plight of the Indians of Chiapas. They want us to understand the centuries of oppression, first by the Spanish, then by the Mexicans and now by the multinationals who covet the hydroelectric possibilities of the Lacandon. They strive to expose the insidious language of co-optation. As Zapata says, "Every bandito wears the banner of revolution. That's the way Mexico works."

What the authors need to do is simplify. Trim the subplots. Reduce the number of scenes. Let the character of Xun, an Indian who introduces the play and then almost disappears, appear more consistently as the audience's guide. Stress the framework of the 13 days.

By firming up the structure and by trimming the extraneous, the authors will bring to more convincing life the heroic campesinos who one New Year's Day cried "Basta." Enough.

13 Days/13 Días: The Zapatista Uprising in Chiapas continues at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, April 18 through 20, at the PCC Proscenium Theatre, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Tickets are $10 general, $6 for students with ID. For reservations and information call 882-7406. TW

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