By Mark R. Day
During my four years as a volunteer with the United Farm Workers in the1960s, I witnessed Cesar Chavez giving countless speeches at rallies, kneeling in prayer, and venting anger and frustration when things went wrong with his strike and boycott.
But I never saw him sing, nor did I see farm workers sing in a chorus.
All that changed when I attended a rehearsal of the play, Let the Eagle Fly at Southwestern College, written by John Reeger with music and lyrics by Julie Shannon.
There they were: Cesar (played by Joey Molina), his brother Richard (David Rivas), and Dolores Huerta (Susie Peredo Hernandez), and a cast of 30arguing, organizing, and singing about La Huelga and events that took place 40 years ago.
The production is the brain child of Julie Shannon. When she called me years ago from Illinois to discuss the project, I confess I was a bit skeptical. The idea of musical on Chavez and the UFW seemed a bit corny, especially one originating from the Midwest.
But Shannon soldiered on, facing endless bureaucratic delays and foot-dragging from the Cesar Chavez Foundation for approval of her ideas and scripting. Finally, they relented and the play began, first with dramatic readings, then with a full blown production at the University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg directed by Ricardo Gutierrez.
A more recent production at the California Stage Theatre in Sacramento, co-directed by Ray Tatar and Richard Falcon, drew critical praise. “It’s a show we predict will go on to bigger things,” wrote Jeff Hudson in the Sacramento News and Review.
The Southwestern College production of Let the Eagle Fly has not been without its downturns. With just a week to go before curtain time, its director, Bill Virchis was injured in a car accident, and the actress portraying Cesar’s wife, Helen, was called away to work in a film.
But the quality of the production is already in full bloom, thanks to the skills of Virchis who has directed 29 world premiere college plays, including Zoot Suit and Evita.
For me the rehearsal at Southwestern was surreal. Actors portrayed many of the moments of pathos and humor that made picket lines and union meetings unforgettable. Joey Molina does an excellent performance as an idealized Chavez, excoriating his volunteers at times for flirting with violence, and praying intensely that they avoid falling into the dark side.
Susie Paredo Hernandez also does an outstanding job as the snappy, articulate Dolores Huerta, the UFW’s vice president and chief organizer.
I can still vividly remember a scene depicted in the play that I witnessed first hand. It was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when an assassin took the life of Bobby Kennedy. Farm workers from the Central Valley had just canvassed L.A. to get out the vote for Bobby who won the presidential vote in the California primary election.
As I walked away from the theater that night, I couldn’t help but think how well this play re-created the golden moments of the UFW of the sixties and seventies. Here we are again in the new millennium, with an un-winnable warlike Vietnam, with an economy going belly up, and with racism, cynicism and violence roaming our streets.
Now more than ever, we need an organizing model like the former UFW that reached out to form vital coalitions across racial and class lines to make its boycotts successful. It is fitting, then, that one of Barack Obama’s chief strategists is Marshall Ganz, one of the UFW’s best organizers in its hey day.
One of the more touching moments in Let the Eagle Fly is a solo sung by Joey Molina. In a soft, melodic voice, he sings of his reverence for his farm worker father: “My father could never write a poem or a song…but when he plowed a field, he created a poem from the earth.”
Isn’t that what it’s all aboutthe struggle for the dignity of the working men and women? This is what helps make Let the Eagle Fly successful. And this is why we, too, predict it will go on the bigger things.
Let the Eagle Fly runs from March 27 through April 6, Thursday-Sunday, with performances at 7:30 p.m. at the Mayan Hall Theater, Southwestern College, 900 Otay Lakes Rd., Chula Vista, CA 91910. Box office info: (619) 482-6367.
Mark R. Day is the author of Forty Acres: Cesar Chavez and the FarmWorkers. He lives in Vista. firstname.lastname@example.org