Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
“LET THE EAGLE FLY” – Southwestern College, in association with Teatro Máscara Mágica
AIRDATE: APRIL 4, 2008
He was an American Gandhi, right down to the hunger strikes. César Chavez was honored this week with a holiday observed in California and seven other states. Schools and organizations around the county are staging commemorative events all month. This past week also marked the historic 40th anniversary of César’s first long, public fast, which lasted 25 days. His extraordinary story is inspiring and empowering. And it really must be told. Now, along comes a new musical, the first dramatization of César’s life to be approved and supported by the Chavez family. “Let the Eagle Fly” is receiving its full-scale production premiere at Southwestern College , in association with the multicultural local company, Teatro Máscara Mágica .
So, who was César Chavez? A second generation American, a U.S. Navy veteran, a farm worker, labor leader and civil rights activist. Al so a humanitarian, environmentalist, consumer advocate and crusader for non-violent social change. He’s probably best known for founding the United Farm Workers of America, which he led for more than thirty years. The union’s symbol, a black eagle on a red and white background, inspired the title of the musical by Chicago husband-and-wife team John Reeger and Julie Shannon: “Let the Eagle Fly: The Story of César Chavez.”
The show traces César’s life, but primarily focuses on the grueling five-year grape strike that culminated in an enormously successful international boycott. Finally, in 1970, California grape growers had no choice but to sign their first-ever union contracts. These courageous and dramatic events transformed a humble man with an 8th grade education, into what Sen. Robert F. Kennedy called “one of the heroic figures of our time.”
The show has its flaws; it paints a saintly picture of Chavez, ignoring any imperfections. It doesn’t flesh out the central characters. It’s a tad long and repetitive. The music is pleasant, occasionally stirring. At Southwestern College , under the assured direction of William Virchis , the moves are stylized, the photographic projections gripping.
Though the principal actors are compelling, the cast is uneven. But their energy and commitment are palpable. Every time they burst into the song that musicalizes César’s motto, “ Si se puede ” (‘it can be done’), you can see the choked-up emotions.
This is a David and Goliath story of one man’s visionary obsession — equality, justice and dignity for the country’s poorest workers. Chavez battled one of California ’s most powerful industries, and won. His philosophy of nonviolence turned the heads of millions, and we could certainly use a taste of it today. When he died in 1993, more than 40,000 people, from all walks of life, turned out to march behind his casket. He led a remarkable life; he left a remarkable legacy. And it even lends itself to song.
[“Let the Eagle Fly” runs through April 6 at Southwestern College , in Maya Hall,]
©2008 PAT LAUNER