“The Sweetheart Deal” recalls California farm workers’ struggle on two stages
Ruth Livier and Linda Lopez / Grettel Cortes

LOS ANGELES— “I wanted to write about the people we rarely hear about—the volunteers who are the motor behind any successful social movement,” says Diane Rodriguez, Obie Award winner, writer and director of The Sweetheart Deal in a world premiere production now at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, presented by The Latino Theater Company in association with El Teatro Campesino. “We all hear about the leaders who put out the vision, but it’s the rank and file supporters who fulfill that dream. This play is about a woman who finds her voice as a volunteer and, ultimately, the power to lead.”

Consistent with the company’s goal of focusing on the convergence of people, cultures and ideas, this new play explores themes of Mexican American identity and its relationship to history. Student outreach, including a well produced informative brochure with some vital background on the farm workers’ union, the lively press and theatre company that it spawned, and the leaders and volunteers who carried out the unionization struggle, guarantees that future generations will be able to build on this collective national epic.

The basic plot involves a married couple, Will (Geoff Rivas) and Mari (Ruth Livier), both journalists who, now that their son has gone off to college, leave their comfortable middle class life in San José to volunteer for El Malcriado, the underground newspaper founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers. The newspaper fused news stories about the ongoing campaign for justice in the fields with lively cartoons and satire. This was a movement that instinctively recognized the role of humor in lampooning the bosses and lifting spirits in a grim world of brutal racial and class exploitation.

At first, Will is the more enthusiastic volunteer, but Mari supportively commits to a year with the union. The play is essentially about her growth and maturity as a political being and union advocate. Among the themes Rodriguez develops is the need for sober, cogently prepared analysis in the struggle, a decisive, strategic way of approaching events and people, setting aside personal squabbles in the larger interest of the union, and the impossibility of remaining neutral in troubled times. Some of these lessons are offered a bit didactically perhaps, but not all audiences would necessarily tease them out on their own just from the story alone. They’re worth articulating.

The year 1970, when the play is set, was a tumultuous time for the United Farm Workers, and for the nation. Aside from the grape and later the lettuce boycotts, both referenced in the play,  Rodriguez also brings in the Chicano Moratorium at the height of the Vietnam War, when young Mexican Americans (now dubbed Chicano to emphasize their newfound social consciousness) rose to protest the war and the disproportionate numbers of Chicanos drafted to fight and die in it.

It was also a time when the Teamsters, with their long experience and muscle in the union movement—but with no familiarity with farm workers or their ethnic communities—attempted to displace the UFW with their own “sweetheart” contracts with the growers that kept farm workers in their place and provided few improvements in their lives.

The playwright personalizes this struggle through a family dispute involving Mari’s brother Mac (David DeSantos), a troubled ex-cop who has feathered his nest through the Teamsters, and some old business involving the early death of their father in the fields that might have been more clearly presented. Will and Mac are old Marine Corps buddies from the Korean War, now finding themselves on opposite sides of the union. The title of the play refers equally to the Teamsters deal with the growers, and to the agreement the loving couple Mari and Will have made to contribute their time and efforts to the struggle.

One of the most enduring contributions of the farm workers’ movement is the Teatro Campesino, which specialized in short, pop-up agitprop skits (or “actos” in Spanish), commedia dell’arte-style satirical scenes dramatizing the plight and cause of the farm workers. These actos enlivened the issues of the day and galvanized the people’s emotions. Small theatre ensembles traveled across the country and even abroad to win popular support for the farm workers and the boycotts, and nurtured the talents of Luis Valdez, author of Zoot Suit, the prolific satirical group Culture Clash, and many others. Read the bios of Latinx actors and other theatre professionals and you can easily trace the lineage of many of them back to this impertinent homegrown movement.

The author of The Sweetheart Deal herself was part of El Teatro Campesino for 11 years, so her connections with this history run very deep.

In fact, the play includes five new actos. These heightened, ritualistic episodes, in which the audience is encouraged to interact, are played by the actors in the more naturalistic style of the play’s narrative. It makes for some mind-bending work on the audience’s part seeing that the recurring comic roles of the evil Teamsters raider and the “coyote,” the vile labor contractor, are performed by DeSantos, the Teamsters steward, the malevolent pig-masked boss by the head UFW organizer Chon (Valente Rodriguez), and a scab worker by Mari. Experienced labor organizers Lettie (Linda Lopez) and the bell-bottomed Charlie (Peter Wylie) fill out the cast, playing supportive roles.

Period songs set the time frame, and additional original music is supplied by composer Sage Lewis. The set design by Efren Delgadillo includes ceiling-high stacks of personal storage lockers (at first I thought crates for produce), which are moved above to create a variety of environments. The lighting design by Pablo Santiago merits special mention; he has effectively captured weather, time and emotional state. There are also historical projections by Yee Eun Nam. The costume design by Lupe Valdez appropriately registers Mari’s transition from urban professional to rural union volunteer gradually adopting ethnic garb; my only question was whether Mari would have continued to wear high heels throughout this transformation.

I saw this play on Sunday—Mother’s Day—and the audience was way too sparse, I hope only because of the holiday. It’s an excellent production that should be widely seen, especially by those, young and otherwise, who are not so familiar with this era. Even for those who do know this history, it’s a good drama, mostly well told and performed.

The Sweetheart Deal plays through June 4 on Thurs., Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm, and Sun. at 3 pm. There are two student matinees at 11 am on Weds., May 24 and 31. The Los Angeles Theatre Center is located at 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles 90013. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or go to http://thelatc.org/. For group sales, call (213) 489-0994.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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