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The Arts

An unconventional look at an unconventional labor leader

The life of C�sar Ch�vez is examined in boundary-breaking one-man show at Hooker-Dunham

Performances are Thursday, Nov. 3, at Hooker-Dunham Theatre, 139 Main St. Brattleboro, at 8 p.m., and Friday, Nov. 4, at Dynamite Space (basement of Thornes) 150 Main St. Northampton, Mass., at 8 p.m. Advance tickets can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com, or by calling 800-838-3006.

BRATTLEBORO—Like Cesar Chávez, the labor leader celebrated in a new one-man show, Fred Blanco believes in making people feel uncomfortable.

Blanco wants “to force an audience to re-examine their beliefs. Nothing could be greater than if they went home thinking about the ideas in the performance for hours.”

From award winning solo-performer Blanco, The Stories of Cesar Chávez comes to Hooker-Dunham Theatre on Thursday, Nov. 3. This dramatic bilingual portrayal of the civil-rights activist and labor leader blends fact and fiction to offer a look at the California farm workers’ struggle of the 1960s as seen through the eyes of their leader.

Chávez was co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW). “A Mexican-American, Chávez became the best known Latino civil rights activist, and was strongly promoted by the American labor movement, which was eager to enroll Hispanic members,” according to his biography on Wikipedia.

“His public-relations approach to unionism and aggressive but nonviolent tactics made the farm workers’ struggle a moral cause with nationwide support,” the online encylopedia continues. “By the late 1970s, his tactics had forced growers to recognize the UFW as the bargaining agent for 50,000 field workers in California and Florida.”

Blanco’s one-man show will show Chávez’s spiritual journey from farm worker to activist. As imagined by Blanco, Chávez’s 1968 hunger strike leads him to re-examine his past while under the watchful eye of La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Blanco, a Los Angeles-based actor, wrote and developed this piece from interviews and extensive workshopping.

The show now tours internationally, including at fringe festivals, which feature dramatic works of all genres in a participatory, uncensored creative environment.

The Stories of Cesar Chávez toured in 2009 in fringe festivals in Canada, and Blanco will take the show on an upcoming tour of U.S. fringes.

The genesis of his play came when Blanco started reading works about and by Chávez, “just for myself.” Soon it dawned on him that this could be an “intriguing idea” for a stage work.

To create the play, Blanco interviewed many people involved with Chávez, including United Farm Workers of America co-founder Dolores Huerta and Chávez’s brother Richard, who just died two months ago.

The Stories of Cesar Chávez is not a typical one-man show, such as when an actor embodies a famous figure, as Hal Holbrook did with Mark Twain or Julie Harris with Emily Dickinson.

In fact, Blanco thinks that traditional one-man theater can be rather dull. He claims “the impersonation of a famous person talking at you for two hours takes unfair advantage of an audience’s patience.”

In his adaption, which lasts an hour, Blanco plays an array of characters. He portrays not only Chávez but also many of the figures involved with the civil-rights worker.

According to the play’s publicity materials, “Blanco embodies a compelling host of characters, from youthful zoot-suiters and peasant farm workers, to racist Teamsters, to angry radicals as he gives his audience a glimpse of a man locked in a struggle with his personal demons while fighting for equality for his community.”

Playing many characters is an exciting challenge to him as an actor. But Blanco’s first performances in 2006 did begin as a traditional one-man show in which he portrayed only Chávez. That show ran a mere 20 minutes.

Over the years, Blanco continued to experiment with the piece, constantly adding new material, then new characters, ultimately making a multicharacter show that depicted a more complex portrait of the man.

Blanco in no way claims his piece is a documentary about Chávez. Rather, it is an artistic creation that takes theatrical latitude to explore aspects of his subject’s complex life, he says.

Blanco recreates famous moments in Chávez’s life, and he also imagines others: his experiences as a pre-radicalized young man and, later, his political conversations that he had with field workers.

Blanco shows Chávez working with playwright and film directer Luis Valdez, who in 1965 formed the first Mexican-American community theater group, the Teatro Campesino. Chávez and Valdez used theater to promote their ideas, as they would go in the fields to make theater for and with the farm workers, helping them explore the dilemmas of their special lives.

In a similar way, Blanco himself uses his theater piece to awakened people to new ideas, especially those people who have been disenfranchised from the system. He gave more than 100 performances of The Stories of César Chávez last year, many in schools and juvenile halls.

“I particularly enjoys working with kids in correctional institutes,” said Blanco. “Sometimes Stories of César Chávez is the first piece of theater they have ever seen. Furthermore, the ideas in the work can give very disillusioned youth a vision of hope.”

Glorifying the work of a radical union worker, however, does not go down well with all audiences, particularly in the current climate that vigorously debates the viability of immigrants in our culture. His play has met some resistance.

Blanco says he had a performance scheduled in eastern California when “the guy who ran the theater called me. He was very concerned about the strong ideas in my play, and claimed skinheads from the Aryan Brotherhood had stopped another controversial show by attacking the stage performers with weapons. He was worried what would happen to mine.”

Blanco was never sure if this was the truth or just a warning. Although a little shaken, he was eager to put on his play. But in the end, the theater itself decided they were “ultimately not that interested.”

The Stories of César Chávez has won many awards, including Best of Fringe, 2009, London Fringe Festival; Best of Fringe, 2010, San Francisco Fringe Festival; and the Brickenden Award for best touring performance, 2009 London, Ontario.

Local playwright Seth Lepore, who saw this show while he was on tour with the fringe festival with his own one-man show, Losing My Religion: Confessions of a New Age Refugee, enthuses, “I was so blown away by Blanco’s performance and writing that I decided to co-produce the show in Brattleboro and Northampton in early November. People here have to see this fantastic work.”

Lepore thinks the piece could not be more topical.

Given all the recent excitement over Occupy Wall Street, a look at the life of one of the great civil rights and labor leaders of the 20th century suddenly has lot more relevance, Lepore says.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #124 (Wednesday, October 26, 2011).

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