By Dale Reynolds
A notable Latina in the Arts is Center Theatre Group’s Associate Artistic Director Diane Rodriguez, whose new play, which she wrote and directed, The Sweetheart Deal, is having its world premiere in Los Angeles, this Friday, May 12 at the Los Angeles Theater Center in downtown Los Angeles.
The Sweetheart Deal, set in 1970, illustrates what a difficult time it was for the Latino political and social movements. Leaders Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and others had founded the United Farm Workers in 1966, after two farm-worker organizations, Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), largely Filipino workers, and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), mostly Latinos, merged. In her play, Rodriguez traces the history of the UFW through the eyes of two journalists who leave their middle class life in San Jose to volunteer for “El Malcriado”, the underground newspaper founded by Chavez and Huerta.
“I wanted to write about the people we rarely hear about – volunteers who are the motor behind any successful social movement,” says Rodriguez. “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.”
This interest in recent U.S. Latino history came out of Rodriguez’ own family history, specifically an aunt and uncle who worked for a couple of years, along with her cousins, in the fields in Delano, situated in the agricultural middle of California. She had performed in “actos” (short plays), that dealt with farm workers, with the world renowned El Campesino Teatro troupe in her youth. “We’d perform on dirt, or on the back of trucks, entertaining those on the picket lines.”
After becoming a professional actress, appearing in such films as Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Luis Valdez’ La Bamba (1987) and Psycho III (1986), and in plays such as Lisa Loomer’s Living Out, at the Mark Taper Forum, as well as directing Migdalia Cruz’ The Have Little, Dan Guerrero’s solo show, Gaytino!, as well as a host of plays at East West Players, Cornerstone Theater Company, South Coast Repertory, Fountain Theatre, Center Theatre Group, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, City Theatre Company in Pittsburgh, PA, Mixed Blood in Minneapolis, Actors Theatre of Phoenix, Borderlands Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, and Victory Gardens in Chicago, among others.
While helping to develop Hispanic themed plays at CTG, she took a couple of years to workshop her own plays at a variety of national festivals: the Indiana New Harmony Retreat in NYC, at Oregon Shakspeare Festival’s Black Swan ? which helped her improve the long-form plays.
These included Splinters, with a group of ten “show-runners,” (writers who write and produce television series. Another play, her first, was Living Large, for a theatre in Chicago, and The Sweetheart Deal, her second. A third one, as of now untitled, is in the process of being written.
And in-between all this, Rodriguez was a co-founder of Latins Anonymous, a sketch comedy troupe, with Luisa Luchin, Rick Najara, Armando Molina, and eventually, Cris Franco, which had a long and illustrious life.
She was appointed last year by former President Barak Obama to the National Council of the Arts, which meets three times a year, directing funds towards the arts, a council President Trump wants to kill.
This production of The Sweetheart Deal is about a woman finding her calling while volunteering for an underground political newspaper during the early years of the United Farm Workers movement, was part of a national project, El Fuego, from Latinx Theatre Commons – a dozen plays that were part of a Chicago Festival in 2015. Here it is a co-production of the Los Angeles Theatre Center in association with El Teatro Campesino. (The LTC promotes American Latino narrative-plays throughout America, supporting playwrights, directors, and theatre artists, scholars and academics.)
The Sweetheart Deal, with its cast of five, is part of LATC’s most diverse season they’ve ever had. “There’s more focus from the work of communities of color, which is important as those communities are beginning to fill theatres nationally. It’s time, with lots of people learning the craft of writing. And cable television is experiencing a resurgence of great writing in general, also with writers of color.” And, in general, for the past dozen years, LATC has been working diligently to address the diversity of staff and on-and-off stage.
So what does her play mean to her? “It’s very much a play about today, even though its set forty years ago: the activism and the sacrifices that brought justice to other peoples – those who volunteer and fight for the larger picture; people who recognize how their comfortable middle-class existences were allowing them to miss the problems in our society today: exploitations of workers, homelessness, and health issues. We can’t do anything about these problems if we continue to live in our bubbles. So, I’m exploring a movement from fifty years ago [he great grape boycott], born out of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. It took a decade to fully get the contracts which protected the working rights of the campesinos, proving that there is always potential in mass resistance (very much an issue of today).
Rodriguez has written five new “actos,” short, commedia-style satirical skits dramatizing the plight and cause of the farm workers, to further her tale. One of the challenges she faced was how to successfully merge the heightened, ritualistic actos with the more naturalistic style of the play’s narrative.
“I was a member of El Teatro Campesino for 11 years, so I feel a very, very deep connection,” Rodriguez explains. “Their involvement in this production is kind of an extension of their presence in L.A. that started with Zoot Suit.”
Diane wrote collectively with the ensemble Latins Anonymous, whose two-play anthology is published under the same name. Her solo work is published in various anthologies including “La Crème de la Femme,” published by Random House. Her play Living Large premiered at Teatro Luna in Chicago. At the LATC, she previously directed Erik Patterson’s world premiere production Sick (LA Weekly Award nomination for Best Director).
The Sweetheart Deal plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through June 4 at The Tom Bradley theatre located inside The Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, CA 90013. Tickets can be purchased by calling 866.811.4111 or at www.thelatc.org.