The Sosa-Fremont-Carrillo House stands sentinel against the grey-brown stone of the Tucson Convention Center, silently defying urban renewal and representing the historic barrio that was once home to the city's most diverse population. Borderlands, a theater company now headquartered at the house, has made a name for itself by celebrating the legacy of the barrio, and more broadly, the diversity of the voices of our beloved borderland region.
Milta Ortiz, marketing and outreach director of Borderlands, says the Southwest region is a bit different than the rest of the United States— the border culture lends itself well to artistic representation. This unique plurality of voices gives Tucson the upper hand in striving for minority representation in the arts.
But diversity within the performing arts, specifically ethnic representation in theater and dance, remains a national weakness. The Asian American Performers Actions Coalition released a report concerning ethnic representation on New York stages in 2016, amidst cries of #OscarsSoWhite and outrage over the casting of white actors in Asian roles.
Nine years of data reported by AAPAC showed that 78 percent of roles were filled by white actors, 15 percent by African Americans, four percent by Asian Americans and three percent by Latinos. Last year saw a record high of minority actors onstage: 30 percent.
Yvonne Montoya, founder and director of Safos Dance Theatre, has keenly felt those low percentages in her years as a performer, rarely encountering more than two people of color other than herself in the companies where she rehearsed. "I was very disheartened because I didn't see my culture, my friends, my family, me reflected on the Tucson dance stages at all. Ever," Montoya says.
She founded Safos to combat the lack of diversity in local performing arts organizations, as well as the inaccessibility of performance opportunities for certain communities. Safos, according to Montoya, is a safe space for choreographers, artists and audiences of color, "to explore their culture, their communities, their ideas and their aesthetic" in places and contexts that make sense.
Both Borderlands and Safos Dance Theatre thrive on "site-specific" performance—art spaces within the actual communities they represent. In order to be mindful of the barriers certain communities have to theatre, Montoya says, Safos' work doesn't always happen within a proscenium.
In "Color the Mural, Dancing the Mural," Safos' two-year project in conjunction with South Tucson's House of Neighborly Services, 21 artists created a community-specific piece which spoke to the wants and needs of the South Tucson citizens surveyed.
Choreographers then took those themes and made dance works which incorporated members of the community as performers. Montoya created a dance piece in homage to the Sixth Ave low rider culture of the 90s, using the back of a vintage truck lent by a proud South Tucsonan. "He was very grateful for the opportunity," she said.
Borderlands, too, celebrates the benefits of community-specific theatre pieces. Barrio Stories and Shooting Columbus stand out in their success outside of a traditional theatre, and not simply in terms of good acting or production quality.
"Taking theatre out of a conventional space that may be off-putting to people that don't normally go to the theatre is a way of inviting those people to attend," Ortiz says. "And so we've removed that location that may not be welcoming to them and are placing it in a cultural center."
Borderlands' relatively small size allows them to be "nimble" when it comes to bringing about change through what can be seen as risky theatre, Ortiz says. In her estimation, big theaters fear losing subscribers to shows that can be seen as "niche," like Latino-specific productions. And that's a big obstacle for arts diversity to overcome.
"I think people of color don't have a culture of going to theatre because the theatre has not been for them, it has not been about them," Ortiz says. "The more that theaters take the chance and create plays about people of color, the more that audience will come out."
And there certainly has been a push for change here in town. The BlakTina Dance Festival, which premiered in Tucson in 2015, showcased the choreography of African-American and Latina dance artists, and will be remounted and reimagined by Liliana Gomez on July 22 in Phoenix. Todd Poelstra and the creative team at Pima Community College have also made a "conscious choice" to showcase the many Hispanic actors in the company through multiple award-winning bilingual productions.
"Certainly we want to do projects that reflect their sensibility of identity and do everything we can to explore that and be as inclusive as possible," Poelstra says. Without performances that showcase the broad ethnic spectrum within our own communities, he says, we're doing a disservice to our audiences. "We're storytellers. And it's cultural nourishment. It's nourishing our soul."