One of the most exciting things I experience in terms of theatre is an expansion of reality. Some works use the bridge of our own experience to lead us into a world-view, a reality, a set of experiences all but unknown to us. It can be as relatively small as what it is to pretend at a gender not your own, to be a murderer, to live in a kind of family where dysfunction achieves a level of art form, etc. In the case of The Sweetheart Deal, for me, this was to taste the history in many ways not mine. And yet part of mine, because I am an American and a native of California, as well as someone who lived through the sixties.
Yet I honestly don’t know much about the founding of the United Farm Workers Union. Diane Rodgriquez’ play (she also directed) brought a sliver of that struggle to life. It proved disorienting. And moving.
In an almost Brechtian style, the play begins with people in exaggerated costumes (including a mask) in effect dramatizing a kind of political cartoon. The Owner, the Worker, the Teamster—broad portraits/archetypes rather than people. But immediately we find ourselves among real individuals caught up in that not-so-long-ago struggle. Thus the play proceeded—the living cartoons about the situation, in between the genuine lives of what really happened.
Mari (Ruth Livier) returns to her home town, the farming desert community of Delano, when her husband Will (Geoffrey Rivas) volunteers to help out the Union newspaper. He feels a deep need to do something important in his life, to make a mark. She feels conflicted about the whole thing, simultaneously proud and reluctant, loyalty to her husband and distaste for the actual situation, pride in the cause and fear for possible consequences. Yet both of them make friends with the editor Chon (Valente Rodriquez) and his assistant Lettie (Linda Lopez), and eventually even get close to the Chicago organizer Charlie (Peter Wylie). What starts the road to tragedy is when Charlie suggests they try and contact Mari’s bother Mac (David DeSantos) who served with Will in the military.
This frankly impressed me the most—the dynamics of this man, his wife and her brother. Mac and Will were best friends, with the latter providing some powerful emotional glue for the former in the wake of their service. But that all changed when Will met, fell in love, then married Mari. The brother never really forgave this desertion. Nor has he been able to own up to his own responsibilities, not even for the temper that led him to hurt his own father. We don’t get all the details, but we get enough. The result is like seeing the outline of a forest that looks very real, yet we cannot really see into the depths of its landscape. We only know it is there. No small feat.
Such a totally human situation, amid the valid and important “Big” events, moved me very much. The abstract became concrete, with a straightforward point of view but no easy answers. Now, admittedly, I am no fan of polemic theatre. But The Sweatheart Deal handled well and avoided the pitfalls of the type (the very very end seemed a bit anti-climactic to me, but your mileage may vary). Which proves on par for what I’ve come to expect from the Latino Theater Company—good plays, performed very well but a solid and talented corps of actors.
The Sweatheart Deal plays Wednesdays at 11am, plus Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, with Sundays at 3pm until June 4, 2017 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Tom Bradley Theatre, 514 S. Spring Street (not far from Pershing Square), Los Angeles CA 90013.