Hilary Bettis is a busy woman.
The author of the new play opening this weekend at Borderlands Theater has just landed a new job as a writer for the FX network's sixth season of the series The Americans.
"This was just my first week," she says, as we finally get a chance to speak by phone. "There is so much to learn and the hours have been so long."
Not that she's complaining. She knows she has been fortunate that her work in the world of theater and film has brought her numerous awards and fellowships, along with a validation of her talent and skills.
Her play to be produced at Borderlands, The Ghosts of Lote Bravo, is a work that has been developed with the support of some of those fellowships, including one sponsored by the Kennedy Center of the Arts in the summer of 2014 and another in Julliard's PlayLab. Borderlands founder Barclay Goldsmith, who has now stepped aside as artistic director but still is associated with the theater, has been associated with the Kennedy Center summer playwriting program for several years and was assigned to work with Bettis. He was taken with her work, and continued to help her develop it. He is directing the play at Borderlands, assisted by Mary Davis.
"It is a challenging and intensely dramatic play," he said. "It tackles a difficult issue and makes us look at it in new ways."
This difficult issue is the horrific violence the residents of Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, have experienced for years at the hands of drug cartels and corrupt officials. More specifically, it looks at the violence toward women, which Bettis points out has been hushed up and discounted. In her play, Bettis seeks to inform us about what they have dealt with.
The story centers on a woman whose daughter disappears from the sweatshop where they both work. When she gets no cooperation from law officials to help with her search to find her daughter, the woman, Juanda, feels that her only hope is to seek the guidance of La Santa Muerte.
The saint's name is often translated as "St. Death" or "Holy Death," according to "Big Jim" Griffith, our celebrated source for much of the history and folklore of our multi-cultural home here in Arizona.
"La Santa Muerte is often depicted in a long robe, holding the world or a scythe or both," Griffith explained in a 2014 Arizona Daily Star article.
"She doesn't ask questions or demand virtuous behavior of the petitioner and because of this she has found a growing popularity among the poor." She is an "outsider," and therefore often appeals to those who are seen as outsiders. She is not an official saint recognized by the Catholic Church, he says, but she has evolved as the saint of the desperate.
Bettis said that the play made her re-think about Santa Muerte "unapologetically," and challenged her to find ways of representing her in the play.
She says writing the play was like giving her permission to acknowledge "a part of who she was." Her grandfather was from Mexico, but he demanded the total assimilation of his family to American culture. They were not allowed to speak Spanish. In fact, she was told that when her mother was pregnant with her, her "grandfather's greatest concern was that I would have dark skin."
When she heard about photojournalist Julian Cardona, who had been documenting the violence in Juarez, she noted he had not documented the violence against women and children. This really made Bettis curious about what was going on with the women there. As she learned more and more, she says she decided wanted to bring attention to what was happening, as a way of validating and showing respect for their suffering.
As Bettis began to explore her "obsessive curiosity" about the horrific actions in Juarez and beyond, she felt a deep sadness, and she says couldn't understand "how we could allow such things to happen." She began to see that the real issue driving those crossing the border was largely misunderstood. She also came to agree with many U.S. citizens who feel that these folks—who are not only from Mexico but Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and other countries—are desperate and are willing to risk everything to escape living in fear and danger.
"They really are refugees," Bettis says.
Goldsmith says Bettis' play gives us "an intensely dramatic" experience of what this violence is like, to the point that it might make an audience uncomfortable. But it also has "a very poetic quality."
Bettis says that part of her intention with the play is to make us uncomfortable.
"It will require an audience to sit and listen so that we might see things in a different way," she says. "I hope it will spark a conversation about what's happening and will allow us to have more empathy and compassion with these people and what they are dealing with."
The Ghosts of Lote Bravo is part of the National New Play Network, "an alliance of non-profit theaters dedicated to the development, production, and continued life of new plays," according to their website. It is part of their "rolling premiere," which means that selected new plays are produced in three different locations over a few months. Tucson is the first city to premiere the play. It will also be produced at the Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri, and at the Ohio's Cleveland Public Theatre. By working with different theaters, playwrights are given the opportunity to see how the play is handled by different creative groups and to make revisions and adjustments as the piece evolves.
"I really believe that what is happening on our own border is one of the greatest human rights atrocities of this generation," says Bettis. "What can we do about it?"