Ignited is an occasional series that delivers on-the-ground communiques from the Latinx Theatre Commons’ (LTC) El Fuego initiative. El Fuego emerged from Carnaval 2015, a festival of new Latinx plays held at DePaul University in Chicago. Beginning in September 2016, eighteen theatre companies committed to producing the work of Carnaval playwrights, in a series of productions that will run through 2020. In step with the LTC’s mission to champion equity through scholarship, the Fuego initiative has also matched new work with scholars of Latinx theatre and performance. Through Ignited, these critical witnesses offer reflections that both chronicle and critically position new Latinx theatremaking in the public discourse of US American theatre.
“Everywhere I go, I see people’s faces—the striker’s faces. I stare at their lines, so that I can know them. I read them. I study the wrinkle in the middle of their brow that’s like a scar, or the deep canyons on their faces and those lines speak to me and they say that I am you…That face is me. It’s us…These are our giants. They sacrificed so that we could have a better life. I will be forever grateful…I always hope. It’s a light that I keep burning…No time to be neutral. I keep hoping and causing and fighting for a just world. We all must now.”—Mari, The Sweetheart Deal
Intended to inspire others to social action, the words above from the closing moments of Diane Rodríguez’s The Sweetheart Deal capture the play’s central theme of sacrifice. In her monologue, the character Mari refers to economic and labor sacrifices enacted by Chicana/o farmworkers that have facilitated her own class mobility, as well as that of the next generation of Latinx people, more broadly. The play follows Mari as she makes her own sacrifices: a journey that takes her from an apolitical, comfortable middle-class life in San Jose, California to her political consciousness as a Chicana activist volunteering in the trenches of the United Farm Workers (UFW) movement in Delano, California during the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1970s. The play’s focus on a Chicana character’s coming-into-political-consciousness—exemplified by its closing monologue delivered by a woman—is significant: historical accounts as well as Chicana/o theatre about the Chicano Civil Rights Movement have typically centered male activists and heroes, excluding women’s voices and experiences and rendering them invisible. By foregrounding the sacrifices of Chicana activists and centralizing a Chicana heroine, Rodríguez’s The Sweetheart Deal redirects the masculinist narrative of El Movimiento. With “redirection,” I name how theatremakers have the power to destabilize a dominant narrative and create innovative new ones.
Directed by the playwright Diane Rodríguez, who is an award-winning artistic producer and director, The Sweetheart Deal had a world premiere at the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC) in May of 2017; the play was co-produced by Los Angeles’s renown Latino Theatre Company and El Teatro Campesino, the iconic Chicana/o theatre company founded by Luis Valdez during the Delano Grape Strike in 1965. Emphasizing the centrality of El Teatro Campesino’s legacy to this play, audiences were greeted with a companion El Teatro Campesino exhibition in the theatre’s lobby.
The Sweetheart Deal is set during the tumultuous times of the early 1970s in California. Specifically, it traces the discrimination faced by farmworkers and watershed political events of the Chicano Movement—a political and artistic renaissance of the era that focused on exposing discrimination and obtaining labor, educational, and political rights for Mexican Americans. Mari’s (Ruth Livier) journey begins when she becomes a volunteer, along with her partner Will (Geoff Rivas), at the offices of the UFW underground newspaper El Malcriado—a real newspaper that documented the farmworkers’ struggle against exploitative agri-business corporations and oppressive growers. With the help of editor Chon (Valente Rodríguez) and experienced labor organizers—Chicana chola Lettie (Linda Lopez) and Boston native Charlie (Peter Wylie)—Mari develops a political consciousness that leads her to become a necessary volunteer for the movement. For instance, when Mari persuades her estranged brother Mac (David DeSantos)—a representative of the Teamsters Union—to help the UFW’s efforts, she proves herself to be not only a skillful negotiator for the UFW, but a much-needed activist for Chicana/o civil rights. In the end, Mari’s advocacy of farmworkers’ rights results in her gaining a critical consciousness about the discrimination faced by the majority of Mexican Americans.
Costumed by Lupe Valdez, Mari’s fashion and dress throughout the production represent her transformation from detached middle-class professional into rural union volunteer. She arrives to the El Malcriado offices in a neatly tailored yellow mini-dress and heels with perfectly coiffed hair holding a designer handbag; by the end, she dons Chicana/o activist fashion from the 1970s, such as a poncho emblazoned with the UFW logo and bell bottom jeans. The new bare bones, precarious rural life that defines Mari’s volunteer work in Delano is evoked by ceiling-high grey metal stacks of personal storage lockers; when lighted, these set pieces also visually echo the wooden crates farmworkers handle to pack produce (set design by Efren Delgadillo Jr.). The ideologies of the Chicano Movement that inspire and impact Mari are evoked through digital projections on an overhead cyclorama-type screen: we see and hear the politics of El Movimiento projected through archival footage of activist marches, satirical cartoons from El Malcriado, and the speeches of Cesar Chavez (digital projections by Yee Un Nam). The production’s sound design by Cricket S. Myer and original musical compositions by Sage Lewis capture the spirit of protest and social action that also inspire Mari’s growing consciousness. In addition, the music captures the hardscrabble, rural landscape of Delano, sonically signifying Mari’s shift from her comfortable middle-class life to her immersion into both the farmworkers’ plight and racial discrimination faced by Mexican Americans.
Interspersed amidst the play’s realist narrative are five actos—or vaudeville-esque, agit-prop sketches—employed to tell the farmworkers’ story. Rodríguez’s innovative use of the acto draws deeply from her roots as a member of El Teatro Campesino. Actos, a foundational theatrical form of Chicana/o theatre that has inspired many Latinx theatre practitioners, were first developed by El Teatro Campesino. Staged on flatbed trucks in the fields, at UFW meetings, and spaces where workers gathered, the actos were first performed in public spaces with the goal to ignite political action. In The Sweetheart Deal, the actos dramatize the socio-political issues confronting the farmworkers by referencing the satirical cartoons that were central to El Malcriado. Dramaturgically, the actos’ biting humor functions didactically to raise the audience’s awareness of racial and class exploitation. By pulling the actos out of the folds of history and activist spaces and inserting them onto the LATC stage, Rodríguez takes a hallmark form of El Teatro Campesino’s political aesthetics and reanimates them, thereby redirecting their political and didactic energy and efficacy.
Throughout her career as a director and producer, Rodríguez has created work that redirects. Like her other work, The Sweetheart Deal creates diverse images of Chicanas that break the gendered stereotypes she and other Chicanas have experienced (and continue to experience) as actors in Hollywood, i.e. frequently typecast in roles as domestics, servants, and other entrenched gendered/racialized stereotypes. The Sweetheart Deal redirects Chicano Movement history not only by intervening in persistent official narratives that continue to erase the central role of Chicanas in labor organizing but also by using Chicana/o theatrical forms to stage much needed diverse stories in mainstream US theatre.