|SMC Hosts Ed Begley, Jr.'s Musical Tribute to Chávez and Salazar
By Melonie Magruder
October 18, 2011 -- César Chávez and Rubén Salazar were two seminal Mexican American community leaders in Los Angeles history – Chávez a civil rights activist who co-founded the United Farm Workers, and Salazar a Los Angeles Times journalist who covered Chicano issues, and who was killed by a L.A. sheriff’s deputy in a police action gone bad.
In an award-winning theatrical tribute titled “César and Rubén,” local actor, writer, director and environmental activist Ed Begley, Jr. explores a relationship between the two men, mixing drama, dance, history and humor with the musical contributions of artists like Sting and Carlos Santana. Santa Monica College will present the show next weekend at the SMC Theatre Arts Main Stage on campus; it debuted last weekend.
The co-mingling of such talent and innovative presentation (all songs are sung in Spanish, with English subtitles and plenty of audio-visual pizzazz) seems like it comes at the timeliest of moments.
Within the past two weeks, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law two pieces of legislation that fulfill the aspirations of Chávez and Salazar: the Dream Act, which allows California students who are undocumented immigrants to qualify for state-funded financial aid for college, and a bill that helps farm workers organize without intimidation from employers.
Begley actually first premiered his play in 2003, several years after the death of Chávez, a man Begley says he was “incredibly honored to call a friend.”
“I met Chávez in the early '80's when I was getting deeply involved in environmental issues,” Begley said. “César pointed out to me that saving whales was one thing, but that farm pesticides were killing the farmworkers. I immediately started putting some money into his causes.”
Begley said that he wanted to dramatize Chávez’s life, but he didn’t want a production comprised of monologues or people simply describing an iconic figure.
“César and Rubén had met on many occasions,” Begley said. “So the play is comprised of scenes that show their passion and commitment, not just a lot of talk. And, of course, making it a jukebox musical only enhances the cultural flavor.”
A jukebox musical meant taking popular songs from the commercial airwaves and using them to underscore the narrative. Hence, the music of artists like Sting, Ruben Blades and Carlos Santana help tell the story, with the added benefit of being translated completely into Spanish, a decision that Begley called “essential” to pulling out the power of the show.
Despite his loaded schedule of environmental speaking, his ongoing reality television show, “Living with Ed,” a demand for his directing skills and his most recent film, a just-released comedy with Anna Faris called “What’s My Number?,” Begley found the time to co-direct the SMC production with the current Theatre Arts Department chair, Perviz Sawoski.
“I was thrilled when they asked to do the play,” Begley said. “Then, Perviz asked for my input. Her talent and generosity are phenomenal, so I feel so lucky that she has embraced my ideas.”
Sawoski said it was just a “happy accident” that the selection of this particular play last spring comes at a transformational moment for Latino workers.
“Chávez always focused on the injustices of the working man,” Sawoski said. “He was very impressed with the theory of Ghandi and Martin Luther King that a working person might seem like a nobody, but he can change the system.”
Corralling a multi-ethnic cast of 26 performers, a dynamic musical score and the legacies of the two characters has not been easy. Although she speaks five languages, including French and three Indian dialects, Sawoski doesn’t speak Spanish.
“In the play, Rubén helps César look at his life through Spanish popular music,” she said. “But there are all different genres integrated into the design: Afro Cuban, Argentinean, even Flamenco.”
Sawoski also said that working with Begley has been a blessing.
“It’s been a dream come true,” she said. “He’s humble, he’s got huge energy and he’s always on target.”
Another happy irony of the production is that Chávez’s grandson, Arthur Rodriguez, is a student at SMC and active in environmental issues. Rodriguez’s father is the current president of United Farm Workers.
“When I first saw the play (at its 2003 premier), I didn’t really understand the musical dynamic,” Rodriguez said. “But now, I don’t think you could tell the story without it. Ed has an impeccable sense of putting the right passion front and center. And it’s amazing that the timing is so perfect right now.”
Rodriguez, who is contemplating a career in environmental politics, has been following the Occupy Wall Street movement vigorously, while celebrating the recent legislative victories that would have pleased his grandfather so much.
“This play comes out at such an important moment in our history,” he said. “It’s like there’s something in the air.”
“César and Rubén” runs October 14-23 at the SMC Theatre Arts Main Stage on campus. General Admission tickets are $20 with discounts for students, SMC employees and senior citizens. For tickets or more information, call (310) 434-4319 or go to www.smc.edu/theatre.
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