by Rebekah Thimlar
Stories create spaces that sustain us, transform us, and remember us after we are gone. Pima Community College’s Center for the Arts production of Sun Serpent is a story of family and remembrance. Told by an inclusive cast, it uses magical storytelling that warms and soothes with a touching recognition of the individual. Written by José Cruz González, the beauty of Sun Serpent is that it tells the story of a time seldom seen, in voices seldom heard. This production, directed by Milta Ortiz, is an engaging all-ages show.
Sun Serpent opens on the shores of Tabasco, Mexico in 1519. Amoxtli, a young Totonac girl, spends her time fishing in the shallows with her older brother, Tlememe. She dreams of one day becoming Sky Dancer like Tlememe. The fish they catch is destined for the road that leads to the City of Dreams, where the emperor Moctezuma reigns. Amoxtli and her brother, orphaned by Moctezuma’s army, live with their grandmother, Anci. She strengthens them with stories, song, art, and love. When Hernán Cortés arrives on their shores proclaiming peace and love for the Totonac people, some believe that Cortés is the Sun Serpent, Quetzalcoatl, coming to them in the form of a man. Tlememe, believing Cortés is a savior, joins him in the march to the City of Dreams, where Cortés and Moctezuma will meet. When the violence and avarice of the Spanish conquistadors are exposed to Amoxtli’s village, she sets out along the trail of destruction to the City of Dreams to save her brother, Tlememe.
Sun Serpent is told in a blend of English, Spanish, and Nahuatl. These languages weave between prophecy, dreams, myths, and reality. This play swerves along the line that separates human from animal, shadow from light. Transitions are eased by sound and visual effects. Triptych panels, looming large center stage, take the play from the highest mountains to the cool blue bubbling of the sea. The cast does a wonderful job navigating the transitory nature of this play. One moment, a troupe of howling monkeys dominates the stage, carrying terror and confusion for our heroine. The next, a long black jaguar, sure and strong gives her strength to Amoxtli. This back and forth between myth and reality kept me interested and engaged with the play. Master mask maker, Zarco Guerrero, created the beautiful masks that help push the edges of reality and myth. The production’s use of language, visuals, sound, and performance intertwine into a beautiful vision of an unknowable past.
Sun Serpent was originally written as a story of two Totonac brothers, Tlememe and Anahuac, intended to parallel the relationship between Moctezuma and Cortés, both men of power and influence. Not enough praise can be given to director Milta Ortiz who envisioned the play with a female lead and gave us Amoxtli, our heroine. Reworked with a lady lead, the intended parallels were not lost in this production. The playful brother-sister dynamic between Amoxtli and Tlememe is enjoyable to watch. This female-dominated cast, crew and production team deliver a play that is magical, humorous and engaging.
As much as I enjoyed this production, there were a few moments where I was taken out of it. Some lines, particularly at the beginning of the play, were so rushed I could not quite make out what was said. Although momentarily distracting, this seemed to correct itself and the play was able to hit its stride.
Of the things I enjoyed best about Sun Serpent, particularly at this Autumn hour, is that it creates a space to remember and honor those who went before us. At one point, Amoxtli plays music to accompany the dead on their journey to become stars in the heavens. Later in the play, the names of the dead are recited. I felt all of us, cast, crew, and audience, paused in silence for them. The responsibility of telling these stories is felt in this production. Dedication to the recognition of the individual is what makes this play feel so special, closing the distance of time between past and present, if just for a moment.
In the same way, Amoxtli’s music creates a path to the stars, Sun Serpent creates a path for our community to explore a history that changed Mexico forever. Led by a diverse cast with talented storytelling, Sun Serpent is a truly magical play that succeeds in honoring the stories of those who went before us.
Sun Serpent is showing at Pima Community College’s Center for the Arts through Sunday, October 8th. Tickets can be purchased for $8 by calling 520/206/6986 or online at pima.edu/cfa.