Category Archive for: ‘Victor Cordell’

Más

Should American society be a melting pot of assimilated ingredients or a mosaic of colors, each standing apart? That is the question.

Mas IMG_27777“Más” is a provocative and absorbing docudrama presented by Ubuntu Theatre Project, in conjunction with Laney College’s Fusion Theater Project. Playwright Milta Ortiz’s title means “more” in Spanish, which is a play on words of the acronym MAS, for Mexican American Studies. Tucson (Arizona) Unified School District instituted a MAS program designed to improve self esteem and therefore motivation of Chicano students in 1997.

Though highly successful as measured by attendance, academic performance and graduation rates, political conservatives began attacking it a decade later, and ultimately, Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill in 2010 banning curricula targeted at specific ethnic groups. So why the determined objections to success? Apart from plain vanilla xenophobia, MAS proponents gave ammunition to detractors by including oppression of Hispanics by “white” Americans; adoration of Che Guevara; and other inflammatory topics to enter the curriculum.

Documentaries serve two masters. They must engage the viewer, but they must do so in a truthful manner. That is not to deny the documentarian a point of view, but it should be presented without distortion of facts. Ortiz, herself an El Salvadoran immigrant at an early age, clearly favors programs such as MAS. Opposition viewpoints are presented in thumbnail form, but unsympathetically. Then again, such a depiction is largely deserved.

The thrust stage of “Más” is designed as the floor of a sweat lodge, with a pit as its hub and wide ramps in each of the four directions as spokes. The sweat lodge symbolizes a shared history and cultural bond among indigenous peoples in the Americas. The action of the play, which occurs on and around that feature, is based on real people and incidents surrounding the growth and demise of the program.

The evening opens ceremonially, and the performance is punctuated by chanting, dance, tom-tom drumming, protest shouts, stomps, and punk stick incense smoke which lend dramatic tension and thematic vibe. These effects and intense testifying transform a stage presentation from remote observation to the sense of being there. We see administrators and teachers who fostered MAS with love and dedication, and we see politicians posturing before a conservative electorate who characterize MAS as disrespectful to mainstream America and a threat to its fiber. Most importantly, we see students whose lives have been enriched and whose prospects have been enhanced speaking passionately about its importance and organizing and protesting against its dissolution.

Mas IMG_28888About 15 actors play twice as many roles. The cast is anchored by two distinguished players. Michael Torres is wonderful as Maestro, a teacher with great charisma, who is a magnet for MAS and a motivator for learning. Sarita Ocon is sensational in dual roles. As Flor, she is a student who is allegedly raped by the director of “Precious Knowledge,” a documentary film that promoted MAS. But in going public about the incident, she unwittingly becomes a lightning rod within the movement. As Abuelita (grandma), she is a fiery supporter of MAS, dedicating her all to the hope for future generations. Performances by the rest of the cast are good overall, but Erik-Jon Andre Gibson deserves special note as a high energy student leader in Unidos, an organization fighting to save MAS.

In the end, the movement to retain the MAS curricula fractured and lost momentum. Internal divisions between hard and soft liners; pervasive sexism within the movement; and clashes over strategies, including the response to Flor’s incident sapped its strength. But in the political environment in Arizona, perhaps closing down MAS was inevitable.

Through persuasion and emotional heart tug, “Más” is very effective in convincing the audience of the merit of MAS, but while the benefits of the program are clear, the play fails to confront some controversial issues. Although the program attempts to link its expected mandate to the indigenousness of students, Mexican-Americans’ heritage draws from Spain and from indigenous peoples of Mexico, not the United States. Further, the content of its program draws from all of Latin America, yet by its title, it ignores American immigrants and descendents from Guatemala, El Salvador, and elsewhere.

In addressing the specific needs of Mexican-Americans, the playwright ignores the broader question of whether schools should offer unique study programs for Native Americans, Vietnamese, Chinese, or recent arrivals from the Horn of Africa. Where is the line drawn? How large should the curriculum be, and how much should it displace classes that seek to create shared values among all students?

Whatever the answer to those challenges, the fact remains that a valuable program was sadly extinguished. In this play, the fervent belief in MAS is written, produced, and acted with complete conviction. It honors truth and entertains.

“Más” by Milta Ortiz is production managed by Fallon Burner. It is produced by Ubuntu Theater Project and Fusion Theater Project and plays at Chapter 510, situated at 2301 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, through May 29, 2016.

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