Imagine that you are a jaguar, roaming the rugged canyons and forests of the Arizona-Mexico borderlands. You eat what you please and drink from hidden springs and remote mountain pools. No other animal dares to challenge you, and most of the million humans in the region don't even know you're here. You prefer it that way, as you walk for miles every night tending to your feline affairs, a spotted phantom toiling in ghostly obscurity. You are the wildest of wild animals, the king of the Sky Islands—but there is one thing you lack.
One day, after wandering for 14 years and many hundreds of miles in a lonely quest, you detect the unmistakable scent of a female in heat. Alas, the instinctual thrill of this miraculous discovery is replaced in a moment by visceral rage when you realize that you've been tricked, and trapped. In your fury, you tear yourself to shreds trying to escape, in vain. What you thought was deliverance is instead your demise.
This is the story of Macho B, the only known American jaguar in 2009, when a botched illegal capture led to his death. And now it's also the story of Dawn Costello Sellers, who read the tragic tale of the big cat in the newspapers and was deeply moved. "I had tears in my eyes," she tells me. An accomplished playwright, Dawn resolved to bring Macho B back to life on the stage.
Compassion turned to compulsion over the next three years as Dawn embarked on her own quest to learn everything she could about the jaguar, from its biology to its place in history and myth. She soon found herself at a tracking workshop on a ranch in northern Sonora, examining the unmistakable signs of a resident jaguar just 30 miles south of the Arizona border. "It was intoxicating," she says. "We imagined we could almost touch him."
She traveled to Guatemala and Honduras, researching the jaguar's place in indigenous cultures with art historian Mary Miller. "The jaguar was here before there was anything else," she says. "Why? Why do we need him?" Her journey will culminate next month in the premier of her play, "JAGUAR!" "This isn't me doing this. This is the play coming through me. It's been on its own power for some time."
Dawn says her play is an "eco-drama," connecting art with environment and science. Despite some strong criticism of the role that humans and science played in Macho B's death, Dawn insists that the play is not anti-science. "It's about intellect vs. intuition," she says. "How do we keep that in balance?"
There are many elements to the play—intricate dance, indigenous music and natural sounds, and photography of ancient depictions of jaguar. "Light in this play is really another character," Dawn says. "We have a lot of talent in this community." The production also utilizes the work of Santa Fe artist Susan Contreras, whose painting "Jaguar Dance" was adapted for the poster and web site, and renowned maskmaker Zarco Guerrero, who created beautiful masks specifically for this production.
The play is directed by Eva Tessler, a longtime veteran of Tucson's Borderlands Theater, and produced by her Latina Dance Theater Project. It's a story of a young girl coming of age who finds herself on a parallel path—and then a collision course—with Macho B. Eva explains that many indigenous cultures invoke spirit animals linked with humans, often in the dream world. "Sometimes we collide, and that's when our lives change."
I ask Eva about the fascinating interplay between animals and humans, each doing things the other cannot, and how it's represented in the characters and choreography of the play. "I came at it from the essence of the animal, more than its form." She tells me she's always felt a strong connection to animals. "They have a very clear way of behaving—no betrayals, no hidden agendas."
Eva recalls how the jaguar was in conflict with the culture of her father, a rancher in the southern Mexican state of Veracruz who had a jaguar-pelt rug with a bullet hole in it. "It was terrifying that the animal had to die." Macho B's story is tragic, but "JAGUAR!" is really about hope and transformation. There's another jaguar living in Southern Arizona now—can we coexist?
There will be a preview performance on Friday, Sept. 5, at ZUZI! Theater in The Historic Y. Opening night is Sept. 6, with some of the proceeds benefiting Sky Island Alliance, a local conservation group that works to monitor and protect jaguars in the border region. A biologist will be on hand for a Q&A following the show. Go to jaguarplay.com for more information.