The outline of a black eagle on a red background painted on banners and signs dominates the action of Su Teatro's Papi, Me and Cesar Chavez. This eagle is the symbol of the United Farm Workers, founded by Chavez in the 1960s to improve the lot of the men, women and children -- most of them Mexican -- who picked vegetables and fruits in America's fields. These workers labored in the blazing heat from sunup to sundown for less-than-subsistence wages. They were housed in appalling conditions. Many were sickened by the pesticides they touched or inhaled, and the average life span of a campesino was 49 years. Chavez settled on the eagle, with its squared-off wings, for the UFW's symbol because it represented the Aztecs and was easy to draw on flags and cardboard signs. "When people see this," he said, "they know it means dignity."
In 1966, strikers marched 340 miles from Delano, California, to Sacramento, the state capital. What started as a group of seventy or so people swelled to more than 10,000 as workers and supporters came out to join the marchers. And every evening, a California troupe called El Teatro Campesino performed for the demonstrators on the back of a flatbed truck.
Like El Teatro Campesino, Su Teatro has existed for over thirty years, and its current production embodies the same agitprop tradition. Using a script by Anthony J. Garcia, the company tells the story of the great march in a mixture of movement, song, dialogue and chanting. The stage is set up on the lawn outside the high school that serves as both theater and community center; the audience includes older people who surely remember the ferment of the '60s and teenagers for whom Chavez and his union-organizing are ancient history. The actors urge us to chant "Huelga!" and "Boycott grapes!" and they lead us in a spirited rendition of "El Picket Sign, El Picket Sign" and a soulful one of "We Shall Overcome/Venceremos."
You can see the play's origins as an educational program, as the charismatic Hugo E. Carbajal brings two audience members on stage to play farmworkers and a third to serve as their pot-bellied, cigar-sucking patron. But there's also a story here. Ten-year-old Gloria, played by Valarie E. Castillo, yearns to be a writer and watches her parents struggle to survive. She worries about the health of her beloved and weary Papi (Manuel R. Roybal), and hopes that she'll be able to stay in school long enough to acquire an education. The stories Gloria spins involve a superheroine by the name of Gloriana, who can walk into any corporate office and demand that the workers receive a living wage. Gloriana comes to life in the person of actress Laura Chavez.
For a long time, Papi resists joining the union because he fears for his family. But ultimately, of course, he takes Gloria's hand and joins in the march. The show ends on an affirmative and empowering note. (Although as I watch, it occurs to me that despite Cesar Chavez's hard-won triumphs, the lot of immigrant workers today isn't much better than it was in the'60s.)
Papi, Me and Cesar Chavez is a longer version of the show that Su Teatro has been taking into the schools; it's still in development and shaggy in spots. The dialogue could use sparking up, for example, as well as some judicious cutting. But there are a lot of elements that make the evening enjoyable and save it from didacticism. There's exhilarating music and singing, provided by both off-stage and on-stage musicians, and Magally Rizo Antuna has provided lively choreography. You can't help but empathize with Castillo's wistful and funny Gloria and the way she clutches her well-thumbed notebook to her chest. Chavez is a wonderfully bashful superheroine, and all of the actors approach their roles with honesty and humor.
I love the idea of theater as a tool you can pick up and use when you need it -- straightforwardly, like a hammer or a potato peeler. It rescues the form from pretentiousness, irrelevance, egotism and crass commercialism and asserts that, even in these reactionary times, theater still matters.
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