Asheville Sister Cities brings Mayan culture to the stage

ROYAL TREATMENT: Tzakbu: Queen of the Maya explores the challenges and victories of the seventh-century Mayan queen’s public and personal lives. It will be performed in Western North Carolina by The Palenque Rojo Theatre Company, the only majority-indigenous theater company in the history of Chiapas. Image courtesy of Asheville Sister Cities

In 1994, archaeologists Arnoldo Gonzalez and Fanny López Jiménez were excavating a temple in Palenque, an ancient Mayan city in Chiapas, Mexico. Gonzalez wanted to turn back, but his assistant Jiménez said they should continue to explore — she had a feeling that they would soon discover a tomb. Gonzalez relented, and, soon after, Jiménez led the crew to one of the greatest Mexican archaeological discoveries of the 20th century: the sarcophagus of Tz’akbu Ajaw, a seventh-century Mayan queen.

The play Tzakbu: Queen of the Maya, based on these historical events, is coming to Western North Carolina. Performances by the Palenque Rojo Theatre Company will be held at Western Carolina University’s Bardo Arts Center on Friday, Sept. 30, and at the Diana Wortham Theatre on Sunday Oct. 2. Tzakbu is performed in the Mayan language, but will include an English narrator. Written by Ragnar Conde, the story follows Jiménez (performed by Zaira Rocha Ovando) from the moment of her archaeological discovery through her imaginary transformation into Queen Tz’akbu herself. Tzakbu explores the challenges and victories of the queen’s public and personal lives, especially as she balances responsibility with her relationship with her husband, Governor Pakal II (played by Mario Chambor Chanador.)

Director Hiram Marina believes that both Queen Tz’akbu and Lopez lacked recognition for their accomplishments because they were women. “It is believed that Tz’akbu played a large role in building the estate of Lakam Ha alongside her husband … but her tomb had no hieroglyphs or even an outer description of the queen inside of it,” he says. Even with the discovery of Tz’akbu’s tomb, Marina continues, “Arnoldo Gonzalez got all the credit, even though Fanny was the one who wanted to continue the search. Again, women were placed on a subservient level.”

Marina is a globally esteemed director whose play Palenque Rojo also about Mayan history, was performed at the 2012 G20 summit for world leaders in Mexico. Marina developed a relationship with Western North Carolina through Asheville Sister Cities, a volunteer-based nonprofit building global collaboration and friendship through partnerships with six designated “sister cities” around the world.

The organization began working with San Cristóbal de las Casas in the Chiapas region of Mexico in 1994, when volunteers from Asheville noticed a similarity between the two towns. “To get into San Cristóbal, you drive into this city that looks like a bowl surrounded by mountains,” says Asheville Sister Cities board member Gwen Hughes. “They had a vibrant arts scene, and the group came back and said, ‘We need to make this connection.’”

Marina heads many efforts at the Palenque Rojo Theatre Company in San Cristóbal — the only majority-indigenous theater company in the history of Chiapas. Tzakbu will be performed in Asheville by 19 Palenque Rojo actors. Despite discrimination against the indigenous and steep budget cuts to arts and culture initiatives in Chiapas, Palenque Rojo continues to create daring and socially aware performances celebrating Mayan identity. “I’ve been to Asheville more than seven times, and I always feel at home here,” Marina says. “The town has treated us so well, and for this reason we want to share Tzakbu here.”

Palenque Rojo’s actors will also hold workshops on Sunday, Oct. 30, with students in the dance, drama and anthropology departments at WCU, as well as a reunion with WCU’s Cherokee language program after a powerful meeting with its members in 2012. “As they exchanged Mayan and Cherokee last time, they realized many of their words and songs were the same,” Hughes says.

To advertise the performances, Palenque Rojo’s actors will wander throughout the streets of downtown Asheville on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 1 and 2, to share Mayan songs and dances and advertise the play.

Tzakbu is also made possible by Mónica Lorena Colín Gutiérrez and Remedios Gómez-Arnau, Mexican consuls in Raleigh, who have been major sponsors of the event. The consuls provide assistance with legal documents, health care and other acculturation needs for Mexicans living in North and South Carolina. The two are scheduled to speak at the beginning of the Tzakbu performance at Western Carolina University.

Describing the mission of Asheville Sister Cities, Hughes adds that supporting cross-cultural performances is especially vital as some xenophobic attitudes have been felt during this election year. The timing reminds her of an exchange trip at the beginning of the Sister Cities partnership, when a group from San Cristóbal visited Asheville 10 years ago. “One man staying in my home said, ‘You know, we think Americans hate [Mexicans] because it’s all over the television,’” she says. “And I said, ‘Turn the TV off. That’s not real. You’re welcome here.’”

WHAT: Tzakbu: Queen of the Maya

WHERE: Bardo Arts Center Theatre at Western Carolina University, 200 Centennial Drive, Cullowhee

WHEN: Friday, Sept. 30, 7:30 p.m. $24 adults/$20 for WCU students, faculty or staff/$8 children

WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre,  2 S. Pack Square

WHEN: Sunday, Oct. 2, 2 and 7 p.m. $26.75 adults/$16.05 students

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About Eliza Stokes
Eliza Stokes holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and Global Studies from Warren Wilson College. She received the 2016 Larry Levis Award for outstanding manuscript on behalf of the Warren Wilson MFA Program and has read for the Juniper Bends Reading Series. Eliza is a freelance writer and editor based in Asheville.

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