Tucson theatre titan Barclay Goldsmith brought politics to the stage

Every theatre-lover in Tucson knows that Barclay Goldsmith, who died this week at age 87, was a giant.

With Teatro Libertad and then Borderlands Theater, he produced more than a hundred shows. 

The plays he chose were wildly different from one another. In 1976, for example, with Teatro Libertad — a collective of actors and writers — he and his group planned to do a play for the the 200-year anniversary of American independence. Everywhere in the country, productions were celebrating the birth of the nation and the heroics of the founding fathers. Barclay and his comrades had visited the Bicentennial Freedom Train, a touring exhibition of American memorabilia that offered a rosy picture of American history. 

Teatro Libertad’s play told several different stories, including one about the Colorado deportations in 1915 and another about the Pachuco Riots in Los Angeles in the 1940s. 

Goldsmith and his company also chose to write about Irish immigrants. After fleeing the famine in the 1840s, many were pulled into the U.S. Army almost as soon as they got off the ships. Along with German immigrants, they were made to fight in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). 

These Irish soldiers, nearly all Catholics, were often beaten and abused by their officers, who were mostly Protestants. Many came to view Mexico with its Catholic churches and Catholic communities as a more welcoming place. They asked themselves, “Why are we here, it’s just as bad as England.” Some deserted the U.S. Army and formed a battalion to fight for Mexico. They went into battle under a green banner and called themselves the San Patricios. 

The play was so authentic that lines were written in Irish Gaelic as well as in English and Spanish. An Irishman, Gary MacEoin, who had taught the cast their Gaelic lines, later remembered that Tucson’s Irish-born priests “blessed themselves in astonishment when they heard Chicano actors speak their native tongue.” But there was no joke about the fate of the San Patricios. Fifty of them were eventually captured and executed by the victorious U.S. army at the end of the war. Today, monuments in both Mexico and Ireland commemorate the San Patricios.

As Goldsmith explained later, “’El Vacio de ’76′ was our answer to the (Freedom Train). What was really going on? What was behind the Alamo? Or the Gadsen Purchase? History is subjective. Whoever is in power tells history’s story.”

“El Vacio de ’76” was just the beginning. Over the next 48 years, Goldsmith continued to produce plays that would astonish his audiences. Among my favorites were: Julie Jensen’s “She Was My Brother,” about a Zuni “two-spirit” encountered by disapproving ethnographers; Victor Hugo Rascon Banda’s “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky,” about a Tarahumara woman wrongly confined to an asylum in Kansas City; and Kara Hartzler’s “No Roosters in the Desert,” with dialog drawn from actual interviews with migrant women collected by Anna O’Leary, a UA cultural anthropologist, and a story line about a crisis of conscience when a woman is injured crossing the desert. 

Goldsmith seemed drawn to stories about bad things happening to good people. On a night in October 2013, he himself played a part in just that kind of story. A peaceful vigil had gathered outside of Southside Presbyterian Church after the arrest of two undocumented men from the neighborhood. 

He was among the Samaritans who had taken to the street. He and many of his friends were 60 and 70 years old. The Tucson police usually handle these confrontations, and, by law, before taking any action, stop to warn protesters of arrest and give them a chance to disperse. On this night, Border Patrol agents rushed in first and began knocking people around without the required warning. 

John Fife recalled, “Twenty Border Patrol agents attacked the citizens in the crowd, throwing women, youngsters, and the elderly to the ground. TPD officers watched and did nothing as the Border Patrol attacked peaceably assembled citizens.”

Goldsmith and many of his friends had been mistreated or hurt in the melee. Dorothy Chao, who was recovering from cancer, had her headscarf snatched from her bald head after she was knocked off her feet. Seventy-one-year-old Dr. Norma Price was shoved against a palo verde tree, forced to the ground, and left bleeding up and down one arm from the prickers.

That night, Goldsmith wrote an account of what happened: “I am 76 and not always steady on my feet, so I broke a hand grip with Michael Hyatt. I was walking away from the group towards the street and a border patrolman shoved me aside quite strongly; I almost stumbled and fell. I corrected my balance and again began to walk toward the street away from the bus and the ensuing chaos with protestors, police and Border Patrol when again I was pushed aside and almost fell on top of Dr. Norma Price.” 

Barclay Goldsmith lived a life in the thick of things, devoted to political theatre. But his activism always ranged far beyond the stage. He was courageous, indefatigable and modest—and dearly loved by all who knew him.

Goldsmith, who had Parkinson’s disease, died Wednesday.

He is survived by his wife, Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, sons Christopher and Patrick, and two grandchildren. Services are pending.