Stage Musical Explores Legacy of Cesar Chavez

There are lots of musicals in town. That famous one about the witches of Oz is at the Pantages, and the one about the Four Seasons is at the Ahmanson. But have you heard about the musical that brings to life the legendary labor leader Cesar Chavez? KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde takes us to a rehearsal.

Note: Story updated 8/7/07 12:06 p.m.

[Sound from rehearsal: "5, 6, 7, 8," then music]

Kitty Felde: It's not your usual musical theater fare. A stage full of actors recreates a labor rally that ends badly. Police move in and club the demonstrators, all in slow motion. The scene is part of the play "Cesar & Ruben."

The work is a dramatization of a day in the life of Cesar Chavez, the man who founded the United Farm Workers union. Actor Mauricio Mendoza says the scene with the demonstrators is all too familiar.

Mauricio Mendoza: Is it ever. I mean, this whole thing with MacArthur Park all over again. It's just repetitious. And you see it in the news, how they're pushing the media away. Where are we 20-some years later? We're still repeating the same old stuff.

Felde: In "Cesar & Ruben," Mendoza plays the role of Ruben Salazar. The L.A. Times reporter was killed in 1970 by a tear gas projectile fired by a Sheriff's deputy during a Chicano anti-war march. Salazar was one of the first Chicano journalists in the mainstream media.

In the play, Salazar returns from the grave to remind Cesar Chavez of his accomplishments: How he organized migrant farm workers in California; how he warned early on about the hazards of pesticides; how he used boycotts and hunger strikes to push the growers for better pay and better working conditions for farm workers.

[Song]

Felde: "Cesar & Ruben" is written and directed by Emmy-award-winning actor Ed Begley, Jr. He was a pallbearer at Chavez's funeral 14 years ago.

Ed Begley, Jr.: I had no intention of writing a play about Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers, or any of that. I simply was driving on the 99, the California 99 highway, after Cesar's unfortunate death, and a song would come on the radio and I'd go, "Now there's a good song. If someone ever does a movie or a TV movie or a play or something about Cesar, that would be a good song to include."

[Song]

Begley: And pretty soon, without ever wanting to do it, I'd written the first act of a play through music, just listening to these songs.

Felde: It helped that Begley had pals like Don Henley, Sting, and Ruben Blades who gave him the rights to use their music in exchange for a tiny percentage of the box office. Begley says he combed Latino music stores, looking for other music from groups like Los Pinguos and Control Machete. He says a young clerk asked him why he was interested in the music.

Begley: I said I'm writing a play about Cesar Chavez and he said, "The fighter?" I went, "No," I said, "The other Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers guy." And he said, "I don't know much about him." Then I think I really need to do the play.

Felde: Begley is not only the writer, he's the director and even the understudy when one of his actors get another gig.

[Sound of Begley on stage]

Felde: "Cesar & Ruben" premiered in 2003 at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. The production won several awards. Two years later, Begley reworked the play in Austin, Texas.

Actor Danny Bolero played various roles in both productions. In this version, opening at the NoHo Arts Center, Bolero has the title role of Cesar Chavez.

Danny Bolero: I'm hoping that projects like this will open people up to being a little more forgiving, a little more accepting. And I start to think, 'What would Cesar do if he was here today? How would he react? What differences would there be?' And I'm hoping this show can someone open their eyes a little differently.

[Sound of end of duet with applause]

Felde: "Cesar & Ruben" opens August 10th at the NoHo Arts Center at Magnolia and Lankershim in North Hollywood. The family of Cesar Chavez is expected to attend the opening night performance.

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