By Evan Henerson
In the new play “The Sweetheart Deal,” a husband and wife discover a new sense of purpose when they leave their comfortable lives in San Jose to volunteer for an underground political newspaper during the early years of the United Farm Workers (UFW) movement.
The tale, while not strictly autobiographical, is extremely personal, says Diane Rodriguez, the play’s author and director.
“I was very close to the United Farm Workers (UFW) union because when I was with El Teatro Campesino, we would perform for the UFW consistently over the years,” Rodriguez said a few days before the world premiere of “The Sweetheart Deal” was set to open at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. “Even before I joined El Teatro, my aunts and uncles volunteered for UFW and they took my cousins and lived in Delano for two years. They worked for the underground newspaper, ‘El Malcriado.’
“Most of the play is kind of a naturalistic tale of a couple finding themselves volunteering during tumultuous times.”
Tumultuous, indeed. Under the leadership of Cesar Chavez (who does not appear as a character in the play), the farm workers and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee in Central California lead a boycott against the table grape growers. The Delano Grape Strike and Boycott ended up pitting the UFW against the Teamsters who were accused of cutting an illegal “sweetheart deal” with the growers. Rodriguez has written a series of “Actos,” - short stylized political sketches that are embedded in the play to help give the audience historical background
Husband and wife Will and Mari get swept up in the battle, with Mari evolving from reluctant follower of her husband into a passionate, independent activist. Mari may be a fictional character, but Rodriguez contends that dedicated volunteers like Mari were the types of people who helped effect change at a grass roots level.
Nearly 50 years later, those same kinds of volunteers are as important as ever, according to the playwright.
“During the time this play took place, there was quite a lot of upheaval in the United States,” Rodriguez said. “There was a lot of racism and lack of access and opportunity for a whole strata of the population. We’re seeing that happening now and it’s getting increasingly worse as the days go on with the actions being taken in Washington."
“We don’t talk about sacrifice, but volunteers sacrifice to make the movement work,” she continues. “If we want to create a movement in the United States, we have to talk about what we’re willing to sacrifice to do so.”
Asked about the importance of unions both in 1970 and in present day, Rodriguez emphasized their function as an organization that looked out for workers.
“During the early history of the U.S. and during industrialization, unions gave rights to workers who were overworked and who were working where conditions were very poor, who were low paid and had no benefits and no insurance,” Rodriguez said. “That’s when a union is of utmost importance: when these human rights are necessary and need to be valued.”
“The Sweetheart Deal” plays through June 4 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., L.A. Info: (866) 811-4111, thelatc.org.
Pictured above: (L-R) Ruth Livier and Linda Lopez in "The Sweetheart Deal." Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography