Published in KPBS On Air Magazine April 2004

A time-traveling Mayan warrior. An ancient ballgame played out as a hologram.

Luis Valdez is at it again. The legendary playwright/director, known as the Father of Chicano Theatre, once again melds past, present and future as he continues exploring the indigenous mythology of the Americas.

In his latest world premiere, Earthquake Sun, he blends magic realism with science fiction in a multi-lingual, multi-national, multicultural love story. His sharp-eyed focus is on the Mayan people who have fascinated him for 40 years. They, like the Yaqui Indians he wrote about in the magical Mummified Deer (2000), are part of his ancestry. His sons even have ancient names: Kinan, Mayan for ‘solar energy,’ Lakin, ‘another sun or sunrise’ and Anahuak, the Aztec term for ‘America.’ All are in the ‘family business,’ theater.

From January to June 2004, Valdez is resident artist at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, on a grant from the National Theatre Artist Residency Program. To attain the techno-wizardry the play requires, the Rep is working in collaboration with the Center for Teledramatic Arts and Technology at California State University-Monterey Bay, where Valdez is a founding professor.

Sam Woodhouse, producing artistic director of the San Diego Rep, says the company feels “blessed” to have Valdez in residence “to write provocatively and wisely about the birth of a new binational culture on the busiest border in the Western Hemisphere.” This project is part of the Rep’s multi-year Teatro sin Fronteras and Calafia Initiatives, which are intended to explore the past and future of our border region.

Earthquake Sun fulfills the mission in spades. It’s about cultural fusion and individual identity in an increasingly technological world. It’s about war and human sacrifice and the moral collapse of civilizations. And it envisions a future in which borders, instead of being separators and isolators, become points of contact where people come together.

Set in three millennia, the play centers on world-class athlete Jaguar Kan, who, for 3000 years, has been searching for his lost twin brother and the woman of his dreams. We follow him on his journey from the Mayan jungles and palaces of the year 712, through the Arizona desert in the year 2012 (with its border-crossing coyotes and illegal immigrants), to the clone-filled future of 3312.

The multiple themes and perspectives seem to be a culmination of Valdez’s life’s work and interests, combining math (his major at San Jose State, before he switched to English), internationalism, border issues, science fiction, digital technology and the history of the Americas. Valdez became fascinated with the Mayans in 1964, just after he graduated college. This was before he founded the renowned Teatro Campesino, the theatrical troupe that set the standard for Hispanic theater in the U.S. Before he wrote Zoot Suit (for stage and screen) or the film La Bamba or the play I Don’t Have to Show you No Stinking Badges. Long before he won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award or Golden Globe nominations, three honorary doctorates or the Mexican government’s prestigious Aztec Eagle Award. His years of research came to a head when, in the past decade, the Mayan code was finally cracked and deciphered.

“The Mayans were like the Greeks of the New World,” Valdez asserts, “for their many innovations as well as the mystery of their civilization’s collapse in the 8th-9th century. They developed architecture, medicine, mathematics, poetry, philosophy, concepts about behavior, morality and artistry. They had such a noble start, but they defeated themselves; they were overtaken by war, partly for political reasons and partly due to human nature. For the play, I wanted to find an emotional equivalent of all that. And it became this love story, and the time-travel of this warrior prince, who puts himself in the mouth of danger to plead for his loved ones.”

In Mayan society, numbers and constellations, counting and calendars were essential. The Earthquake Sun was considered an apocalyptic ‘end-time.’ According to the Mayan calendar, it is the 5th Sun (or epoch), a time of great change, expected December 21, 2012. The proximity is not lost on Valdez.

“I think the elements are lined up,” he says. “Millions of people could die in a flash. On the other side, we can hope against despair. I choose hope and transcendence. That’s a very Mayan perspective, pessimism coexisting with optimism. The Mayans typically looked up at the stars, not down at the ground.”

What most people know of the Mayans is the victor-beheading ritual ballgame, pitz, which features prominently in Earthquake Sun.

“The game was a meditation, and also a fertility rite,” Valdez explains. “The ball going through this vertical ring represented impregnation, as well as the sun and moon, water and rain.”

The emotional climaxes of the play include symbolic sexual union, the launch of a sunship and the game depicted as a hologram. The technological demands seem enormous, but Valdez insists that “it takes great simplicity to achieve complexity. I want to achieve the Mayan concept of zero [a construct they first identified]: a full emptiness and an empty fullness. Ultimately, the play has to take place in the audience imagination.”

[Earthquake Sun previews April 17-22 and runs April 23-May 16 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza; 619-544-1100]

©2004 Patté Productions Inc.