Borderlands’ Más takes us back to a time our community broke, but reminds us that theater can heal and bring us back together

Summoning you downtown is a spectacle born to tell the story of how our community was betrayed in the name of American values. It happened in our state and in our city. It was witnessed through news media throughout the country. The consequences of this betrayal have been dramatic, and because the originating setting was the classroom, this betrayal involves our community's children.

Borderlands Theater is led by new artistic director Marc David Pinate, selected to lead the company last year after founding director Barclay Goldsmith stepped down after 27 years. Pinate is the force behind the presentation of Más, a reckoning with the Mexican-American studies debacle in the Tucson Unified School District.

The play was written by Milta Ortiz, Pinate's wife, underwritten by several agencies, among them the National New Play Network and a Tucson Pima Arts Council Individual Artist Grant. Ortiz has a solid body of work, as does Pinate himself, as actor, teacher and poet. The youth and energy of the young couple is palpable here, and clearly Pinate is re-envisioning and refining ideas about Borderlands' identity—firmly grounded in its official mission statement—as well as its role in the community. Más gives us a vision of what that might be.

This particular event's unfolding began as a series of classes at Tucson Magnet High School and other TUSD schools, geared to Chicana/o students, focusing on history, literature and government.

Ah, the perils of education. It was determined, as the story unfolded, that the courses were inculcating not only knowledge, but pride, as students learned who they were within the larger story of American history. The students in the class responded with increased attendance, a feeling of connection with one another and their world, and just a smidgeon of self-empowerment. And that was perceived as a threat by the more powerful in the state government. Classes were suspended, directives from the state education leaders were imposed and, although not necessarily the most critical but perhaps the most chilling action, books were banned and a law created that made the classes illegal.

But then the trouble was multiplied, and as in all churning for change, divisive and inflammatory problems emerged within the MAS movement itself.

I called this play a spectacle, with no intention of belittling it. It's not showy, although it has visual strength. The storytellers relate, episodically, some of the major moments of import from what might be called the origins through at least a part of the aftermath of this period. But the evening is stylistically conceived and executed. And it is meant to be experienced rather than merely watched.

In a way, this is old school theater. Way old. It is a rite; it has a spiritual context. In fact, it is initiated as an act of healing, from the time we arrive at the theater's entrance where we are asked if we wish to be blessed and cleansed with the smoke of sage. We enter the small theater; there is an authentic sense of the truly human and the truly sacred. The audience is seated on three sides, facing two intersecting lanes of sand, which are lined with orange tissue flowers. In the middle is a fire pit, into which are ceremoniously placed "book stones," symbols of the banned books. We are told we are in a sweat lodge—temescalli—a place common in the cultures of many indigenous peoples, a place for individual reflection, talk with others and for the expression of gratitude and prayers. Here are ceremonial dancers, wearing magnificent masks (created by Zarco Guerrero) adding an immeasurable dimension to the storytelling, and there is an ensemble of earnest players who take on many roles.

Over the next couple of hours, we are immersed in the heart and shockwaves of this event. It's not all slick. Some of the players seem to have more skill than others, but they live and die as a group. And they live.

The production staff has pulled off a notable environment. The play is well-researched, and the importance of dramaturgy is clearly demonstrated.

It's really unfair to single out the players, but they do deserve mentioning: Natalia Alvarado; Perla Vanessa Barraza; Angelina Duarte; Enrique García Naranjo; Roberto Garcia; Annabelle V. Nuñez; Luke Salcido; and Nicolás R. Valdez. The very capable dancers are Mario Ortiz; Eliza Butler; Daymeon L. Rembert; and Yvonne Montoya, who is also the choreographer.

All this could have unwound miserably into a didactic, embarrassing stew of self-indulgence. And at times there is a hint or two of unwinding. It is sometimes not clear what is being said, or how certain things fit with others. Maybe the effort is a bit too ambitious in what it attempts to tie together. And there is definitely a bias. (Although Ortiz attempted to interview many of those who held conservative and sometimes antagonistic views, they declined.)

But the commitment and earnestness of the troupe, cradled in the creative insights of the director, wins the day.

Foremost, perhaps, we see further development of Borderlands' belief that theater is not just an entity within the community, but it is the power of community: reflecting, creating, revising, re-creating.