Cesar Chavez was a giant in the American labor and civil rights movements, but right now he’s eight inches tall.
“I have to do something for mi gente,” the little cardboard Cesar says on the Toy Theater stage in “César Chávez and the Migrants: The César Chávez Story.” A half hour long, the show is by far the longest of the six short plays in Teatro Sea’s three-day MicroTheater NY at The Clemente, which ends Monday. All six of the works in this 11th season incorporate puppetry.
MicroTeatro is a form of theater that originated in Spain. A small number of theatergoers visit one very short play after another. I last sampled the approach at Intar’s site-specific MicroTeatro festival last year.
Short plays, small audiences — it’s the logical next step to have tiny performers.
I saw four of the six at The Clemente this weekend. My favorite was “Dirt,” performed by two natives of Nashville named Mikey Rose and Amanda Card, who have relocated to Bushwick, Brooklyn. Mikey plucked the banjo and strummed the guitar, Appalachian style, while Amanda sung original country-flavored songs, then told a tall tale about her Mama’s Mama, using a handmade crankie (a long illustrated scroll that was popular entertainment in the 19th century) and shadow puppetry. The story begins with how much her Mama’s Mama loved to grow tomatoes, but one day a tornado arrived on the farm and destroyed her tomato plant. She was so furious that she rode the tornado, until it was tamed.
The show would have been charming enough if it had stopped there. But then she told a more personal story of how the desire for a green thumb – if not the ideal conditions nor the talent for one – has passed down from generation to generation in her family.
Spica Wobbe’s “So Close & Yet So Far” uses toy theater more abstractly to tell of a little girl’s search for a story, accompanied by gentle music.
In “A Bloody Good Time,” three adults dressed as clowns silently rummage through a toy theater cemetery, unearthing skeletons one by one and graphically illustrating how they died – all of them gruesomely. The front row is given a plastic sheet to hold in front so as not to get sprayed with bodily fluids. This might appeal to adults with a macabre sense of humor, but, although they present themselves as “The Grand Guignol Theater for Children,” the poster makes clear this is “NOT for children.”
“The Cesar Chavez Story” IS for children. Written and directed by Manuel Morán, the artistic director of Teatro Sea, it is clearly meant to be the main attraction; it’s in the largest theater in the Clemente, and it will presented again on March 31st, which is Chavez’s birthday and is celebrated as a holiday in thirteen U.S. states (as we’re told in the play itself.)
Federico Mallet and Ursula Tinoco portray farm workers who during their lunch break, use a fruit crate to set up a Victorian-era toy theater. They use cardboard cutouts and a paper timeline to tell the life story of the man who co-founded the United Farm Workers union. They spend much time talking about his childhood – how his parents had to give up the farm they owned when “the United States went through a very hard time….They called that period ‘The Great Depression.’” The family became migrant workers, Cesar had to move around so much, following the crops, that he attends 65 different schools. The kids bully him, the teacher scolds him for speaking in Spanish.
How the adult Cesar organizes the farm workers is indeed an inspiring story; it includes the use of theater as an organizing tool (El teatro campesino) and methods borrowed from Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr — a 300-mile protest march from Delano to Sacramento; a hunger strike; a national boycott.
The show is willing to delve into some of the complex challenges of the struggle, but not the complexity of the leader – such controversies (spelled out even in his Wikipedia entry) as his push for a crackdown on illegal immigration, claiming undocumented workers were used to break his union. Perhaps children need their heroes uncomplicated; perhaps they’ll welcome as well the exaggerated style of acting in the production. I’ve said for years that puppet shows are not just for children. But this one, I think, is.