THE SWEETHEART DEAL Theater Review
Set against the backdrop of the United Farm Workers’ struggle, the best thing about playwright/director Diane Rodriquez’s The Sweetheart Deal is its dramatization of how being a part of a movement affects a couple. Mari (Ruth Livier) and Will (Geoffrey Rivas) are middle-aged married Chicanos originally from California’s agricultural region who long ago moved to the big city of San Jose.
Using the G.I. Bill, Will parlayed his service as a lackey of U.S. imperialism during the Korean War into earning a B.A. This enabled the college grad to get a decent job editing a mediocre newspaper and raise his family with a comfortable middle class lifestyle. (Of course, for many university graduates drowning in student loan debt today, the notion of getting a well paying job upon earning one’s diploma is a quaint fairy tale.)
Probably pulled by their Latino and rural roots, in 1970 Will and Mari leave their urban, petit bourgeois existences behind and return to the land where they were born and raised to become part of the unionization wave led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. This dramatic change in their way of life seems to be more Will’s decision than Mari’s, but perhaps because she really loves her husband, she hesitantly joins him in volunteering for (supposedly) one year to support the UFW’s cause for better working conditions in the fields, even though its mean a drastic drop in their own middle class standard of living.
Working in the movement elevates Will and Mari with a new consciousness, endowing them with a nobility they could never have attained in their mundane middle class lives, just existing for themselves.
Sweetheart explores themes such as materialism versus inner spiritual satisfaction. As The New Testament put it so poetically: “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” Working in the movement elevates Will and Mari with a new consciousness, endowing them with a nobility they could never have attained in their mundane middle class lives, just existing for themselves. They have a higher purpose and Rodriguez, who according to press notes, “was a member of [the UFW-affiliated] El Teatro Campesino for 11 years,” does something that the Soviet filmmaker V.I. Pudovkin accomplished in his 1920s silent movie masterpieces Mother, The End of St. Petersburg and Storm Over Asia - dramatizing the role of the individual and his/her interactions vis-à-vis a cause that is much bigger than his/her self. How participation in the struggle impacts on the individual - and, importantly, visa versa.
The drama also unfolds how their involvement in the workers’ uprising affects Mari and Will’s relationship. Mari’s apparel, crafted by Lupe Trujillo Valdez, cleverly reflects her political and psychological evolution. How Mari and Will grow - and the surprising changes they experience in their own psyches and personalities, personal growth - is the core of Sweetheart. In this sense, perhaps the title The Sweetheart Deal is a double entendre, with a double meaning beyond just the backdoor transaction the Teamsters reputedly made with the growers to ice the UFW out of organizing the campesinos in the fields.
Rodriguez also helps shatter the stereotype of the “hot Latina,” currently typified by Sofia “Vulgar” Vergara as the sexy wife of a much older, well-to-do white businessman on the supposedly “progressive” sitcom Modern Family. Although union organizer Lettie (Linda Lopez, who previously played Anita in West Side Story) makes a sexual comment or two, and Mari has an amorous scene with Will, there is much more to them than only sex. They are equal, intelligent, dedicated human beings, feminists fighting for social justice - like the Hispanic women who co-lead the miners’ strike in the 1954 film classic made by blacklisted Hollywood talents, Salt of the Earth.
The play also deals with the theme of betrayal - in terms of movements and on a more intimate basis, on the family basis. David DeSantos, who has the smirk of a lovable scamp, plays Mari’s brother and Will’s Korean War comrade Mac, a Latino with a conflicted relationship with the Teamsters vis-à-vis the UFW. Valente Rodriguez and Peter Wylie deliver sincere, heartfelt performances as devoted UFW organizers grappling with a colossal class war. Lopez also provides some lighthearted moments, with Lettie calling her former self, before joining the resistance, as a “cholla chica.”
The erstwhile ensemble is well-directed by Rodriquez. Sweetheart includes what press notes calls “five new ‘actos,’ short, commedia-style satirical skits dramatizing the plight and cause of the farm workers” that use slapstick and broad physical comedy.
To its credit Sweetheart is no mere hagiography of Cesar Chavez and the UFW, as the play touches upon how the union dealt with the issue of undocumented scabs, as Mexicans are pitted against Mexican-Americans. The whole issue of so-called “illegal aliens” is obviously a very touchy one today under the Trump “Uber Alles” regime, and UFW’s role vis-à-vis this subject deserves to be reexamined. After all, the UFW and its leaders weren’t perfect. For instance, consider this never before published exchange from an interview I conducted with one of our greatest Latino actresses, Rosario Dawson, during the 2016 presidential race:
Q: You wrote an [open] letter to Dolores Huerta, the United Farm Workers co-founder you portrayed in 2014’s Cesar Chavez. I’m a film historian and this is the first time I’m aware of that a thespian is involved in a real life debate with the actual person the actor or actress portrayed onscreen. At the Democratic Socialists of America’s website there’s a picture of Dolores Huerta saying she’s an honorary DSA chair. I’m having trouble understanding why somebody publicly identified with a socialist group is not supporting the candidate running as a socialist, but is supporting the candidate taking lots of Wall Street, Super PAC and corporate money.
Dawson: “Yeah, I’m with you.”
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Q: Why do you think there’s this kind of cognitive dissonance?
Dawson: “I can’t say exactly why she’s supporting - she’s not even said exactly why she’s supporting. She’s made very general statements that Hillary would be better for Latinos, without really saying how or why. When Hillary’s been promoting NAFTA for so many years, talking about how great it was, and about Henry Kissinger. And voting for war. You cannot say she’s not an establishment politician. That’s exactly the reason why I wrote the letter, I don’t understand. And you’re telling me that by writing this letter I’m being divisive…
“I’m bringing up in this letter, people are saying we’re pitted against each other. No, I’m just really confused how you can write something in a tweet that people are “race baiting.” No, what you’re doing is race baiting and divisive, because it didn’t even happen. PolitiFact said that no Bernie Sanders people were screaming “English only” [at Huerta during February’s Democratic caucuses in Nevada]. It didn’t happen. Also, by the way, by the rules of the caucus you weren’t allowed to speak. By continuing to promote that you’ve been putting a really negative spin and stain on my candidate and not actually promoting yours, which is confusing…
“I’m standing with Bernie Sanders because I believe in the people, I’m standing with the people. When you’re a major labor rights activist… and then you’re standing with someone who’s been so against that for so long. It seems to me that you’re being used for your history; it shines more of a negative light on you. It’s not helping [Clinton]… It just doesn’t make any sense. It literally feels like the wrong history, like a bad dream, a bad joke.
“It’s totally fine. Her and I are totally fine - we love each other. That’s not a question. We totally agree to disagree. But I’m still confused; I still do not know why? She also supported Hillary against Obama in ’08 and took offense that he was using “Sí se puede” - “yes we can.” Maybe it’s a very long history and they like each other. That’s totally understandable. I’m not doing this based on liking someone. I’m doing this based on my ideals and values and the future I want to believe in. I need to stand up for my children and not have deference to my elders over the fact that I feel this is a really critical election that can either help or hurt lots of people.
“Unfortunately, I truly believe the other candidate has hurt too many people… I have to stand with Iraqis, with Hondurans, with people who lost their jobs across America because of bad trade policies. I’m standing with the people, going: “It’s time for a radical change.” Wall Street doesn’t need any more bailouts. By the way, banks that were too big to fail then are even bigger now. We’re heading for another big crisis unless we have someone like Bernie Sanders who breaks up these banks. He’s really looking out for the American people, and that’s why he’s my candidate.”
Meanwhile, back at the review:
Sweetheart, which is produced by The Latino Theater Company in association with El Teatro Campesino, does us a great service by looking back at an important moment in labor and Latino history - and by doing so in a highly entertaining way. It also imaginatively uses an overhead, cyclorama-type screen to project archival footage and other imagery that are evocative of the play’s plot and themes. There is also a companion El Teatro Campesino exhibition at the Los Angeles Theatre Center’s Tom Bradley Theatre.
Unfortunately, on opening night, before the proverbial curtain lifted, actors coached the audience on response-and-call, instructing with slogans to be uttered upon cue by theatergoers, such as that oldie but goodie: “Sí se puede!” Unfortunately, this rabble-rousing was more anticipatory than participatory - much ado about nothing, as ticket buyers were rarely drawn into the action by becoming part of the show through their chanting. Rodriguez’s writing is good but not great and the big pay-off speech is no stand-up-and-cheer oration like Charlie Chaplin at the end of the 1940 antifascist masterpiece The Great Dictator.
Nevertheless, this is a sweetheart of a play that in an enjoyable way proves a working class heroine is something to be.
The Sweetheart Deal is being performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 3:00 p.m., and on Wednesdays May 24 and 31 student matinees at 11:00 a.m. through June 4 in The Tom Bradley Theatre of the Los Angeles Theatre Centre, 514 S. Spring St., CA 90013. For more info: (866) 811-4111; www.thelatc.org.
Reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature-length movie Strike on Friday, 7:30 p.m., May 26, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. This is part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month through November. For info: email@example.com.