Don't Miss Más — The Play About Tucson's Ethnic Studies Ban

Members of the original cast for Milta Ortiz's Más.
Members of the original cast for Milta Ortiz's Más. Borderlands Theater Company
Art is imitating life in Arizona.

Last month, a federal judge ruled that eliminating Mexican-American studies in Tucson public schools in 2012 violated students' constitutional rights.

That means this weekend's Valley premiere of Más at Phoenix Center for the Arts couldn't be better timed.

The play explores the challenges faced by activists who protested a 2010 state law used to justify ending the program.

"It's a redemptive remembrance."

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It's the work of playwright Milta Ortiz and director Marc David Pinate. They're both creative collaborators and husband and wife. They moved from Chicago, where both attended graduate school, to Arizona several years ago, for the specific purpose of creating the play.

Ortiz hails from El Salvador, but grew up in California after her parents fled that country's civil war.

"I'm especially interested in Southwest stories, and feel they have national relevance," Ortiz says.

That's clearly the case, considering President Donald Trump's focus on building a border wall, which has inspired several Arizona creatives to make work with social justice themes.

But that's not what inspired Ortiz to write Más.

Instead, it was a 2011 documentary called Precious Knowledge, which explores the ways student activists sought to save the Tucson ethnic studies program.

After seeing the film, Ortiz and Pinate were eager to talk with people in Tucson about their experiences. In 2013, they moved to Tucson, and started collecting first-person accounts of the battle to overturn the ban. Today, Pinate is producing artistic director for Tucson-based Borderlands Theater, which develops and produces new works that promote diversity and civic engagement.

"Más brought me here," Ortiz says of her play. "It's really the story of the people and the movement."

Even so, it didn't come together the way she expected.

During an early reading of an excerpt of the play, Ortiz got plenty of feedback. And it wasn't all good.

"There was pushback from people who felt their voices were invisible," she says. "The play changed drastically because of community feedback."

Today it's a far better reflection of the community that inspired it, she says. "The play is word for word what people said; I just remixed it."

But don't expect a mere regurgitation, because the work is multilayered. It incorporates dance, indigenous music, and video footage of actual student protests against the ban.

click to enlarge Más dancers with artist Zarco Guerrero. - PERFORMANCE IN THE BORDERLANDS
Más dancers with artist Zarco Guerrero.
Performance in the Borderlands
The cast of 12 includes four dancers, who wear masks created by Mesa artist Zarco Guerrero. The dancers represent four different energies, which Ortiz describes as "transformation, warrior information, beautiful knowledge, and reflection." Most of the cast members are Chicano.

But there's something else that sets Más apart.

"It takes place in the collective unconscious, inside a sweat lodge," Ortiz says. "It's a redemptive remembrance."

The play was first performed in 2015 in Tucson, by Borderlands Theater. But Ortiz is thrilled that Phoenix audiences will get to see it this weekend, in a production presented by ASU Performance in the Borderlands.

"It's especially relevant to what's going on now," Ortiz says. "The alt-right would really be nervous about this play and what it's teaching."

For Ortiz, Más is a testament to resilience and compassion.

"The play is really about people standing up for the community, being proud of who they are, and accepting others."

Más is being performed at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 23, at Phoenix Center for the Arts. Tickets are $15. Get more information on the Cultural Coalition website.
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble