Next to step into the Spotlight is Fred Blanco, who will bring his one-man tour-de-force The Stories of César Chávez to the Sacred Fools stage.
This dramatic bilingual portrayal of the civil rights activist and labor leader César Chávez blends fact and fiction to offer a compelling look at the California farm workers' struggle of the 1960's as seen through the eyes of their humble leader.
The audience will share Chávez's spiritual journey from farm worker to activist. As imagined by Mr. Blanco, Chávez's 1968 hunger strike leads him to re-examine his past while under the watchful eye of La Virgen de Guadalupe.
Mr. Blanco embodies a host of characters, from youthful zoot-suiters and peasant farm workers to racist teamsters and angry radicals, as he gives his audience a glimpse of a man locked in a struggle with his own personal demons while fighting for equality within his community.
OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE winner, 2009 London Fringe Festival
BRICKENDEN AWARD winner for best touring performance, 2009 London, Ontario
“Blanco takes us on a pilgrimage with the Sacrificial Chavez and we want to follow” -LONDON FREE PRESS
“An affecting performer” -L.A WEEKLY
“A wonderfully educational piece for teenagers." -BROADWAYWORLD.COM
“Drop whatever else you are doing and see this play” - BITTER-LEMONS.COM
“Blanco’s performance shows extreme Sensitivity and insight” -COLORADO HUMANITIES
Photos by Morgan Ngu
Produced for Sacred Fools by Brandon Clark
Playwright/actor Fred Blanco’s The Stories of Cesar Chavez is part and parcel of an overlooked yet significant theatrical trend stretching coast to coast: Progressive plays about Communists, labor militants, unions, leftists, etc. As during the last Great Depression when “proletarian drama” swept the stage, socially aware theatre is making a comeback. Indeed, the most interesting thing for me about Blanco’s one-man show is its depiction of Luis Valdez’s Teatro Campesino, a theater in the fields, the cultural arm of the United Farm Workers, the union Chavez co-founded with Dolores Huerta, et al. In a vivid scene within a scene, a grower is portrayed by Blanco in a pig’s mask, which is not only a reference to capitalists’ greed, but also suggests the forms Teatro Campesino takes, which includes Commedia dell’ Arte and ancient Aztec and Mayan rituals. Off the pig, indeed.
This is but one sequence and one character depicted onstage during Blanco’s complex one-man show. Other characters include a zoot suiter, a Chicana tortilla maker, a hired goon/strikebreaker and a Molotov cocktail wielding Latino militant, who advocates fighting fire with fire on the fields during the harsh class struggle. The characters mainly speak English, but there is some spoken Spanish – appropriately, the play deals with this still touchy language issue.
Blanco portrays all of the roles with panache and authenticity, as he does Chavez himself, an hombre caught in-between right and left who tries to navigate his Gandhi-like nonviolent movement and philosophy between these two forces. Just as Martin Luther King (who Gerald C. Rivers likewise plans to depict in another progressive one-man show) contended with vicious Bull Conner-like racists on the one hand, and with Stokely “The Fire Next Time” Carmichael-like revolutionary nationalists on the other.
Blanco convincingly portrays the labor leader and gives us some insight into what made this civil rights icon tick. Who knew that Chavez wore zoot suits and defied Jim Crow laws right here in supposedly liberal California, back in the day? The play is mostly set during Cesar’s salad days in the lettuce and other agonizing agricultural fields in the 1960s. We experience his religious beliefs, the fasts and the times that tried this man’s soul. Those currently fighting in America for full human rights – gays, undocumented aliens, exploited workers, gays, et al – can learn a lot about social struggles from this powerful, poignant play.
At one point during the drama a campesino displays a short hoe, which compelled the ag workers to bend over, causing them great suffering in the John Steinbeck-like fields. Watching this scene I remembered a story that the late great Bobby Lees, the blacklisted screenwriter of many Abbott and Costello movies, told me, about how during the 1940s the Communist Party raised money from La-La-Land lefties, bought full length hoes, and then drove up north to Salinas or wherever to give them out to the Latino and Filipino farm workers in order to spare them the pain of, literally, backbreaking stoop labor.
Out-of-work actors often “suffer” from that Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland syndrome where the solutions to all their problems is: “I know! Let’s put on a show!” So unemployed or under-used thespians write parts for themselves, and sometimes this takes the shape of one-man (or one-woman) shows that showcase their talents. I don’t know if this was the case with Blanco, who undeniably has talent as both a playwright and actor. In any case, one-person shows can take the form of the actor/actress playing just the lead role, or many different parts, a la Anna Deavere Smith and her “documentary theatre,” most notably her 1994 L.A. riot piece Twilight: Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way Blanco’s central character, Chavez, gets lost in Cesar’s shuffle. The labor leader seems to meander among Blanco’s other dramatis personae, and although this play is billed as being about Chavez, the UFW jefe is only depicted onstage about a third or so of the time.
Another problem with Cesar is its low key ending. The play just seems to sort of peter out and run out of steam. This is a writing and structural issue, as there’s nothing wrong with Blanco’s acting, but rather with his uneven playwriting. Nevertheless, The Stories of Cesar Chavez has much to commend it and is well worth seeing, especially by theatre-goers interested in dramatizations about socially conscious subjects, Latino themes, and those who just enjoy great acting. Although I never had the chance to see him in person, when he was depicting him onstage Blanco really brought Cesar Chavez alive for me.
I did, however, meet Cesar’s companera, Dolores Huerta, at a party after the private screening of a documentary produced by Rory Kennedy, the daughter of Bobby Kennedy. (Surprisingly, Cesar’s famous interactions with RFK are not depicted by Blanco, but I guess you can’t cover everything in a bio-play.) Dolores, who is an exceedingly attractive individual, had just returned from her trip to Venezuela with progressive celebrities such as Harry Belafonte, who were eyewitnesses to the 21st century socialism of that other Chavez – Hugo. (It was during this trip that Belafonte made international news by denouncing then-President Bush as “the greatest terrorist in the world.” I say “Day-o” to that!) I asked Dolores what revolutionary Venezuela was like, and she looked at me and said: “Remember all those things we dreamed about and fought for during the ’60s? Well, they’re doing them now in Venezuela.”
If so, I think this would gladden the heart of the late, great Cesar Chavez, who lives again onstage in Fred Blanco’s moving one-man show – his very own version of Teatro Campesino. -Ed Rampell; © 2010 World of Stage
The Sacred Fools Spotlight Series is a continuing collection of performers and productions from across the country and around the globe that Sacred Fools believes illuminate our shared core values of heart, showmanship, and dedication to craft. MORE ABOUT THE SPOTLIGHT SERIES