For playwright José Cruz González, working on “The Sun Serpent” was not just a way to explore the violent colonization of Mexico in the 16th century. The process gave him a much clearer understanding of his own roots.
“I used to go to Mexico as a kid, so I thought I had a sense of my people and culture,” he said by phone from California, where he teaches theater arts. “But digging into the history of the place was a revelation. I came away seeing it as more beautiful and far more complex than anything I’d ever assumed.”
That complexity dwells in the history. “The Sun Serpent,” which opens Friday at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, is a play about the bloody conquest of Mexico by Spain. From 1519 to 1521, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés waged war against the Aztec emperor Montezuma, who mistook the Spaniard for a white-skinned god in the Aztec pantheon. Cortés eventually took the Aztec leader prisoner and plundered the riches of the conquered empire.
“We like to think of the Spanish as brutal and the Aztecs and other tribes as good, but that wasn’t always the case,” said González. “The Aztecs were the oppressors of Mexico before the Spanish. They required human sacrifices from the subjugated populations. That’s why a small number of Spanish men were able to ally with oppressed groups and overthrow this great empire.”
The outcome resulted not just in the transfer of gold from Mexico to Spain, but also changed the population. Today, a majority of the country’s population is mestizo, the name given for those of Spanish and Mexican blood.
Cruz, a professor at California State University-Los Angeles, initially intended “Sun Serpent” for young audiences. It premiered in 2011 at Childsplay Theatre in Tempe, Ariz., where it was seen by Mixed Blood founder Jack Reuler.
If it has become a ticket to a much wider audience for the playwright and creative team, that’s partly because of how it is told.
The production, devised by inventive Arizona director Rachel Bowditch and her ensemble, uses just three actors and more than 30 masks to tell the epic story, which is delivered in multiple languages, including Spanish and Nahuatl, the Aztec tongue. The masks let the actors switch quickly between conquerors and conquered, killers and victims alike.
The actors play battle scenes with masks and outfits that split the actors in two: half-Spanish and half-Aztec. The masks, designed by Zarco Guerrero, have drawn comparisons to those used by imaginative director Julie Taymor.
“We found a good way to tell a really layered story,” said Bowditch, who teaches at Arizona State University. “We’re dealing with epic characters and epic themes and we were able, over two years of work, to come up with something that’s striking and efficient.”
For González, “Sun Serpent” also is a way to stitch together a history that he has only known in fragments.
“You think about what the Spaniards did — they burned the books, they destroyed a lot of history and culture,” he said. “What we have are shards of history. This is a way to reconstruct that, to show the story of the New World as different cultures meet. War and conquest, mixture of blood, that’s the history for all of us in the Americas.”