The Sweetheart Deal
Reviewed by Martín Hernández
The Latino Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center
Through June 4
As a veteran of El Teatro Campesino, the political theater troupe founded in 1965 as the cultural arm of the United Farm Workers, playwright-director Diane Rodriguez knows of what she writes. Like the Teatro’s actos (skits) performed before farmworkers and their supporters on flatbed trucks in the fields or in union halls, Rodriguez’s work, at times didactic and long on exposition, is a stirring call to arms at a time when one cannot stay neutral or “forget those who labor.”
It’s 1970. Born and raised in the produce fields of Delano, California, Mari (Ruth Livier) and Will (Geoff Rivas) have a son in college and a mortgage in San Jose, and have been living the middle-class Mexican-American dream. Now, inspired by UFW founder Cesar Chavez ‘s struggle to organize poverty-waged farmworkers, Will leaves his cozy life and, with the reluctant Mari in tow, returns to Delano where the couple volunteer for the union’s underground newspaper, El Malcriado. With the paper’s editor Chon (Valente Rodriguez), farmworker/correspondent Lettie (Linda Lopez), and UFW organizer Charlie (Peter Wylie), an Anglo, the couple face numerous battles, not least of which is the produce growers’ not-so-subtle support of the Teamsters Union and its thuggish tactics to undercut the UFW’s fight for better wages and benefits.
Another conflict is with Mari’s estranged brother Mac (David DeSantos). A Korean War buddy of Will’s, Mac is also a Teamster shop steward whom Charlie thinks can be recruited to help the UFW. But Mac rebuffs Mari and Will’s awkward efforts to enlist him, and while a truce with Mari ensues, it eventually devolves with predictably tragic events. Through it all, Mari, with the help of Lettie, a self-proclaimed “chola from Fresno,” and an understanding Will, transforms from one who doubts the efficacy of volunteerism to a woman who finds her voice as a skilled and empathetic organizer (a role many woman played in the UFW but that was mostly overshadowed by the machismo of El Movimiento).
Rodriguez skillfully balances humor and pathos to explore the UFW’s strategy and tactics, from the fledgling El Malcriado’s embrace of journalistic professionalism to the informing on undocumented scabs to the Migra. She intersperses her own actos throughout the piece, with her cast portraying cartoonish versions of farm bosses, Teamster goons and noble farmworkers and organizers. Augmenting the agitprop are designer Yee Eun Nam’s projection of text and graphics from El Malciado, Efren Delgadillo’s use of large produce bins for his set, and sound designer Cricket S. Myers’ palette of recordings from the era. Rodriguez and her talented ensemble proudly wear their hearts on their sleeves, and those who recall the fervent cries of ¡Viva la Causa! will be hard-pressed to keep their own hearts in check.
The Latino Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtow;, Thurs –Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 4. (866) 811-4111 or thelatc.org. Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.