Community Activism in the Arts, Arts Activism, Theater of PLACE, and other contemporary phrases which attempt to engage us more fully in the arts or to awaken relevance for our work in general, are not new. But they are brought up increasingly at gatherings here in Tucson, Arizona, and nationwide, suggesting perhaps there is innovation on a grand scale. For some arts organizers and supporters I give them great credit for this. The attempt to revitalize the arts in relation to the community is a good one and I support it, even if there may not be innovation here. I have, though, left some of these meetings with a profound sense of questioning.
After more than 40 years of theater work, 27 with Borderlands here on the Arizona/Mexican Border, and work in Argentina and Mexico recently but dating back to the 1960s as well, I am suddenly looking at some of these terms and the frameworks they represent as if I had never really understood them before, or I see them in a new light. Perhaps this is what happens with age; we look back over time and what we thought we knew gets tested. I am sort of reflecting my way through this essay. Bear with me. To quote the great Spanish singer Juan Manuel Serrat, who, in turn was quoting poet Antonio Machado: “ Caminante No Hay Camino, Se Hace Camino al Andar.”
To me, an arts activist is one who not only creates art in protest or support of a community or world issues but also carries his or her action into the streets, or picket lines. You can talk the talk we used to say but you have to walk the walk. Mind you, for all my agit prop work in theater of this period, I never put myself in harm’s way like members of Teatro Campesino and the San Francisco Mime Troup who were our heroes when we started Teatro Libertad, a Tucson collective in the early and mid 1970s. Well, maybe I was a little bit of an activist. I taught with the late Sandra Archer and Ronnie Davis at a political theater school they started in San Francisco called Epic West. I mentored a group of young gay and lesbian actors, United Fruit Company, in agit-prop theater. I learned from director Richard Seyd, who had, in turn, founded, in 1968, Britain’s first professional, political theatre collective Red Ladder Theatre. In San Francisco, I taught agit-prop techniques, but my colleagues had the political passion to get arrested on Bart on many occasions. I was not with them at the time.
Maybe an arts activist is understood today as a an artist who engages in civic or national political issues that are immediate and the work itself is enough to garner them the term “Arts Activist.” Focusing on contemporary issues takes fortitude and time. I have to re-adjust my thinking less I become too judgmental. I was reminded by others, though, that an arts activist can be innovative in style or form only. I think this is unfair. Innovators perhaps? Either through walking the walk, or through simply through the content of the art they make, community activists are real innovators because they test the limits of our democracy in hopes of making change. This kind of activism may come in cycles, and hence has to be re-invented and re-energized over time. I also believe, it has to be continually renovated.
THEATER OF PLACE:
The border is a devised line that has the U. S. on one side and Mexico on the other, so to speak. It aggressively intercepts a high desert area from the foothills of the Sierra Madre in Chihuahua and Sonora and extends into New Mexico and Arizona. This is our theater’s PLACE (La Pimaria Alta as it is referred to in early chronicles). It is a beautiful landscape, one I always miss when away, but it is covered with scars, both physical and social. The land bears witness to “Cycles of Conquest,” as the late Edward Spicer noted in his book of the same name
It is a tremendous responsibility for an artist to attempt to represent PLACE. One has to know the stories (in these parts the history of the corridos for example) especially the stories that are not part of popular or official history: stories shared in the intimacy of friendship. One has to know the cultural complexity and inter relationships that go back many, many generations to even attempt to be a steward of this special place or any other PLACE a theater wants to claim itself as a Theater of Place.
Where does PLACE begin and end? Fly in an airplane for the first time and you realize the space that anchored your understanding of the world and yourself in that world gets smaller and smaller as you go higher and higher. Maybe your identity disappears. (Maybe this was why I was always terrified of flying). Do you begin to lose your connection of your PLACE with the vast landscape beneath you? What about the stratosphere? You begin to imagine or invent connections between yourself and other places. Border people are citizens of the world, we say. It’s our mission. It’s a defense against losing oneself in the vast landscape, and being a slave to traditional concepts of time. Thank God we as artists have been given the power of representation as long as we use it well.
A book I go back to from time to time is John Lewis Gaddis’s The Landscape of History, he points out in Virginia Wolf’s novel, Orlando, there is a an important, almost groundbreaking fictional rearrangement of the concept of time, place and even gender. (Now there is innovation!) I think of the plays we have produced that wrestle with these concepts, crossing lines in and out of reservations, across the borders and even into other countries (where parallels to the same issues make us connected): She Was my Brother, (Julie Jensen); Guantanamo (Tricycle Theater, London); and Men on the Verge of a Hispanic Breakdown (Guillermo Reyes).
Here is another term that makes me stop and reflect. There are really few Bi-lingual plays. They are most likely in one language with an exotic sprinkling of another. In years gone by, we often produced plays one night in Spanish and one night in English. We called these bi-lingual productions because we could get good grant funding sometimes. It did not matter if the play called for mass murder of THE MAN, as long as we told happy teachers it was a bi-lingual play. These times are over, in Arizona at least, where bi-lingual education for the most part ended almost two decades ago.
Yes, you can have a sprinkling of two languages or three or more. American life is full of what teachers call code switching. Some playwrights like Tucson’s Silviana Wood, really hear it well. I think the best bi-lingual plays are where insertion of certain scenes shows the use of language to overcome barriers of silence or non-communication, often felt by recent immigrants or those in some form of denial. The character of Guapa in the play GUAPA by Caridad Svich suddenly remembers, coming out of trauma, words of a long forgotten Quechua ancestry, and so captures an identity within her that was missing and/or un-voiced. Much of the work of Aditi Kapil, particularly Agnes Under the Big Top, where a muted, silenced Polish immigrant finally dares to speak her mind embraces bi-lingualism as a backbone to the main narrative. One of the protagonists in Sazon de Mujer by Rascon Banda, one of Mexico’s most noted playwrights, a Mennonite farm woman from Chihuahua, and struggles in broken Spanish with an Old German accent to explain how her farm was lost because of NAFTA. These plays show an innovative way of using bi-lingualism as a basic part of the narrative.
Sometimes I get a little uncomfortable with the labels people give us even in the media: ETHNIC is one and a NICHE THEATER is another. Tucson Unified School District had a great program in Ethnic Studies and maybe you have seen all the national news about how the Arizona Attorney General stopped the program because it was “unconstitutional”. I have no problem with the term in general. We have even commissioned a playwright, Milta Ortiz, to write a docudrama about this. However, “Ethnic” can be used often to place some people outside the general frame work of the American experience at large. Yes, some ethnic groups, particularly white folks, have control of the main narratives that are seen and told on our stages, but almost everyone who comes to our shores reaches into the past to discover who they are, and to then cope with their new place here under the new sun: Eastern European Jews, Norwegian Farmers, and Mayans from Guatemala… This commonality of the American experience should not be erased by the word Ethnic as if it is merely used to signify “the other.” I think something really innovative would happen, and maybe it already has, if this could be shown in a play or series of plays as long as it does not sound like “It’s a Wide, Wide World.” O.K. now for Niche Theater. Niche sounds very comfortable as if you are wrapped away in a blanket out of old.
“Don’t be crazy.” a friend tells me. “You are an Ethnic Theater.”
I don’t agree.
“You are in a Niche. Your work is always focused on borders, here or elsewhere here.”
O.K. I can live with being focused on illuminating and focusing on specific stories. But we are no longer in a box! We all long to be in a big circle. Well, almost all of us.
In conclusion I have to say I am a lucky artist. I meet regularly with la gente who really seem to be part of this greater landscape and are custodians of it. For example, a choreographer I know mounts a horse every spring and with a Raramuri guide, heads for the Sierra Madre Mountains, a formidable landscape in these days, to witness the lives and devastation of the land of the Raramuri people. There is a geologist from the University of Arizona who has mapped more than 300 miles of footpaths, in an area half the size of Rhode Island, made recently by migrants traveling north: footpaths where Samaritans on this side of the border can leave water. I know a woman pilot who regularly flies into Mexico to take a census of big horn sheep, desert Elk and blue whales in the Gulf of California. These are all activists: Artists, Humanitarians and Environmentalists. How could you show this all in one play? Talk about INNOVATION!
The other day I had a vision. I was tired and out on the desert with just a few quail at my feet and a woman appeared from under a mesquite tree, blond and blue eyed. A Caucasian type, I suspected. She wore a tattered long skirt and a bonnet of sorts. Thirsty and exhausted, she could not speak.
“Follow me”, I said and we walked to a nearby pathway and I found her a bottle of water, generously left by a Good Samaritan. She gulped it down quickly.
“Easy,” I said.
She put down the bottle and gazed off to the mountains.
“Are you lost?” I asked.
“Yes, an awful shipwreck. But I don’t want to talk about it.” She reached into a satchel and pulled out a GPS. “I can see the longitude and latitude, but friend,” she said, looking at me imploringly “what country is this?”
I paused. In my mind I saw the planet far off with only clouds and I thought of all the fences and walls that had been torn down and built up again over the years, of all the boxes and labels we give ourselves or give to others, only to be discarded and changed.
“Viola”, I said, (that was her name I’m sure) and here I paused again, “I’m not certain any longer that it really matters.”
Barclay Goldsmith, has been Borderlands Theater’s Producing Director since its founding in 1986, directing many of the companies productions and ongoing programs including the Border Playwrights Project , (Diverse voices of the border) and The U.S./Mexico Project supporting bi national exchanges. Plays he has developed/ produced and or directed have toured nationally with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, won awards at the Kennedy Center for New American Theater and in Mexico City as guest director at El Circulo Teatral. He directed La Mujer Que Cayo del Cielo with Luisa Huertas, a production invited to the UNESCO International Theater Festival. He is founding member of the National New Play Network.