Elevating heritage and folkways through theatricality
Four, ten-foot-tall giant puppets dressed in ornate gowns dance down Morley Avenue in Nogales, Arizona. Children point and gasp at the spectacle, the likes of which they have never seen before. Historic buildings, well over 100 years old, come alive as videos of lifelong Nogalenses recounting memories are projected onto them. In one theatrical event, the “everyday” is cast in a new light.
At Borderlands Theater in Tucson, we have been creating theatrical spectacles based on oral histories and neighborhood heritage since 2015. Part play, part heritage festival, the productions—called “Barrio Stories”—incorporate community oral history interviews, short vignettes performed by community actors, giant puppet plays, and shadow theatre.
Recently, someone asked me how we turn oral histories into theatrical plays. Until then, despite having done it many times, I had not thought deeply about the “how” of it. What choices, calculations, decisions had the theater makers involved in these projects been making to turn hours of interviews and reams of transcripts into theatre?
In my folklorist training, one of the fundamental axioms I hold close is that the job of folklorists is to make the ordinary extraordinary. Theatricality can greatly assist in this important task. Through stage magic and the tools of imagery, color, sound, and movement, theatricality creates awe and spectacle.
An exercise I do when I’m training theater artists on the basics of ethnographic fieldwork involves asking them to bring a small object from home that holds meaning for them. They pair up and interview each other about their object, asking questions such as:
How did you acquire this object? What is its origin story? Where is it usually kept and how do you use it? What people are involved with it? What memories are connected to it? What value does it have for you? What is the cultural background behind it?
The interviewer takes notes then does some research and theorizing about what the interview has revealed. Commonplace things such as an old coin, a bottle opener, or a pair of old sandals can hold deep meanings related to family history or personal mythologies. An object can reveal a much larger narrative related to how it signifies safety for its owner, for example, or how it commemorates an important life experience. In this way, ordinary objects become extraordinary. As a theatre maker, I am listening for these transformations.
This is similar to the kind of dramaturgical research actors and directors do when we first get our hands on a story. First we read the script. Just like stories about special objects, the stories in scripts beg additional questions: Where is this story set? Who are the main characters? What are the story’s principal themes? What is the cultural significance of the story? What does the story symbolize?
These questions can lead to weeks of additional research, especially for a director. If the story is set in Alaska in the 1800s, say, I go and research Alaska in the 1800s. If there is a reference to a song in the script, I find every recording of that song and listen to it. I research the original composer to learn where they are from and their musical training and influences. I analyze the lyrics and decide how to present this song in the staged play. As a simple sound cue? Or as something more, if it offers a symbolism to a central theme of the play. I might want an actor to play or sing the song on stage. I may then change the lighting to accentuate the mood of the song. Or I may hire a musician to compose an alternate arrangement of the song or have multiple actors perform it, utilizing both harmonies and lighting effects to add meaning to a scene or reinforce a character’s narrative arc. In these transformations, I turn something as simple as a passing reference into a big, important, “artsy” moment, laden with meaning. I have, in effect, found the extraordinary in what was seemingly ordinary.
Theatre is primarily a non-realistic medium. Yes, there are plenty of realist plays out there, a handful of very famous ones by the likes of dead white men like Anton Chekhov and Arthur Miller. But if you look at theatre throughout the world since its origins, you will find that most theatre has employed elaborate costumes, masks, puppets, music, dance, poetry, acrobatics, mime, clowning—things summarized by the term, “theatricality.”
Consider the popular Broadway musical, Hamilton. The actor and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda took a run-of-the-mill biographical text about a highly privileged, colonial bureaucrat, and with a hip-hip score, amazing choreography, brightly colored costumes, dynamic lighting and the now-famous all POC casting made the history of dead white colonists suddenly relevant to young people of color. He employed all forms of theatricality to create a show that turned an ordinary American historical narrative into an extraordinary “new” retelling about immigration and the birth of this nation.
I can think of similar examples of this kind of theatricality in Borderlands Theater’s Barrio Stories productions. The first comes from 2015, a production set in one of Tucson’s oldest neighborhoods, Barrio Viejo, a predominantly Mexican American neighborhood that was largely demolished in the 1960s under urban renewal projects, which misplaced hundreds of residents. Once a vibrant working-class community, it is now filled with architecture and law firms and refurbished adobe homes selling for half a million dollars and more. Barely a trace remains of the Chinese grocery stores, brown kids playing in the streets, or the sounds of radios playing Mexican rancheras.
When Martin Zimmerman wrote the vignette, “Slap, Slap, Brush,” he made the ordinary act of sweeping and tidying into an extraordinary symbol of resilience and resistance. In Mexican and Chicano communities like Barrio Viejo, homemakers have long practiced the act of “tidying up” by planting flowers, putting up lawn statues, painting and repainting fences, and sweeping front porches and sidewalks.
This culture of tidying up speaks to a larger ethic of caring for and repurposing things long after someone with more resources might throw them out. It is a core value of working-class Mexican-American communities. Making dresses out of flour sacks (like my nana used to make for my mother) is a simple example. Lowriders are a more elaborate example. My Chicana mother, though solidly middle-class and someone who loves to shop, still repaints her porch decorations when they fade instead of buying new ones. This recycling of the old to make something new, getting multiple uses out of something, and leaving nothing to waste points to our inherited Indigenous values, native people being the original recyclers of this continent.
This sweeping in Zimmerman’s script, became an act of resistance against the settler-colonial stereotype of Mexican barrios as dirty, unkept, unsafe spaces. Indeed, the city fathers in the 1960s, were quick to condemn Tucson’s Barrio Viejo, calling it a “blighted slum” and “an eyesore” in the newspaper. They even went so far as to stop trash pick-up to make the barrio look dirty so they could condemn the neighborhood, bulldoze it, and build the Tucson Convention Center in its place.
Zimmerman centers this everyday act of sweeping, seeing it as symbolic of the community collective and its power, in the opening moment of his script, “Slap, Slap, Brush”:
(The sound of a single broom…
Slap, slap, brush…
Slap, slap, bruuuusshhhh…
Then another broom joins in.
The sound seems to multiply…
Swell into a chorus of whispers…
Slap, slap, bruuuuuuuuuuuuusssssssshhhhhhh...
Until it seems there are ten thousand brooms all around us…
All performing the same, simple motion…
Slap, slap, brush…
Slap, slap, bruuuusssshhhh…
Over and over…
Then, just as the sound starts to fade…
Tres MUJERES appear among us, skirts billowing out around them as they whirl like dervishes while they sweep…
Slap, slap, brush…
Slap, slap, bruuuussssshhh…
There is a beautiful choreography to their movement.
Perhaps they even seamlessly hand off brooms to each other as they whirl around one another…
As they consecrate the space…
And as they continue this mesmerizing choreography… They speak to us…)
¿No nos reconocen?
You may have forgotten us
but we’re still here
where we’ve always been
doing what we’ve always done
manteniendo todo limpio
and if you’re quiet enough
on a lonely day
you can still hear that whisper that sacred sound
of us performing our daily rite…
(Slap, slap, brush…
Slap, slap, brush…)
When I staged this vignette on the grounds of the Tucson Convention Center, I saw the three actresses playing the roles of barrio comadres as a Greek chorus. Under the guidance of Tucson choreographer Yvonne Montoya, they created movement, while a sound designer created a sound effect with reverb, echoes, and volume changes that accompanied the sound of the brooms the actresses carried. This opening act of ritual sweeping was magnified at the end of the scene, when thirty other community members—dressed in white to symbolize the spirits of the vanquished barrio residents—emerged from the audience with brooms to join them. The crescendo of sound and movement and community had a visible effect on the audience, many of whom had seen their mothers and grandmothers sweep in that way or had done so themselves. Ritualizing and celebrating this cultural practice of tidying up in this way helped to validate and valorize it.
In our current Barrio Stories production, Borderlands’ ensemble member Veronica Weatherbie conducted oral history interviews of barrio residents in Tucson’s west side. From those interviews, she wrote several scripts highlighting traditions and folkways of Barrio Hollywood, including the now nearly-lost tradition of building adobe houses. Families and neighbors often worked together over several weekends to build adobe homes in a communal activity akin to an Amish barn raising. Men, women, and children all pitched in, sharing labor as well as food and cold beers and sodas.
To theatricalize this cultural practice, Weatherbie used poetry and movement to convey not just the beauty of this adobe home-building, but also its deep connection to the land and the value of communal work.
I remember the house we had was just enough.
A typical Mexican American home…how do I explain…
Small homes and you built on
MAMI speaks while the neighbors perform a stylized choreography of creating adobe brick.
Our own bit of earth
Families build their home from the ground up
A new beginning
A new addition
Making room—when we can
It’s not easy
Sleeves rolled up
We break ground,
Digging Mother Earth
Watering her to make
Cool, creamy Mud-clay
Stir in some straw
Molding the bricks,
letting them dry
Dig, pour, stir, dry
Dig, pour, stir, dry
Tierra, agua, pasto, y aire
So often, our folkways go unnoticed. Our closest cultural practices are just “the way we do it” or “how we’ve always done it.” No big deal. But when we create scripts and theatre to showcase these practices, we shine a new light upon them, much like the folklorist does when she brings attention to long-overlooked traditions and practices.
When I sit down to listen to and record someone’s oral history, they often ask me, “Why do you want to interview me? I haven’t done anything important.”
But everyone has done something important. It is by listening to and valuing these acts—acts so fundamental we may not even recognize them as special—that we uncover, maintain, and celebrate our deep cultural pathways. When we put those everyday actions and practices “on stage” or under a spotlight in the public arena, we allow participants in Barrio Stories to see themselves. We allow their children and grandchildren to see them, sometimes vis-à-vis a ten-foot-tall puppet acting out a story their tata told them about “That time …” when he was a kid.
Theatricality can show audiences the significance and power of everyday folkways in spectacular ways. But as a theater maker, it was thinking like a folklorist that helped me see the beauty and value inherent in these acts to begin with.
Marc David Pinate is a theater maker and culture bearer from Arizona of Indigenous-Chicano heritage. His focus is on site-specific performance, popular theatre, and creative placemaking on his ancestral homelands of the Sonoran Desert region. He is producing artistic director of Borderlands Theater and the recipient of 2021 SFA Plain View Fellowship.