‘Watsonville’: What’s old is new

Milagro's revival of Cherríe Moraga's 1990s play about a volatile strike in a California cannery feels like it's lifted from today's headlines

Let’s do the time warp again. Cherríe Moraga’s Watsonville: Some Place Not Here, which opened Friday night at Milagro Theatre, premiered in 1996 and is based loosely on events that took place in the mid-to-late 1980s. But you’ll be excused if you think it’s ripped from today’s headlines or incendiary tweets. This is no warm-and-fuzzy trip down Nostalgia Lane. It’s more Good Lord, here we go again.

Moraga’s play, a stand-alone drama that is also the final chapter in a trilogy including Heroes and Saints and Circle in the Dark, is a messy, sprawling thing that overcomes its structural problems with an overriding passion and declaration of ugly truths (and a few redeeming ones). Its greatest achievement is to create believable and sympathetic characters who are swept up in situations that are usually viewed in political terms – as “problems,” not as people. For the characters in Watsonville the great social drama of a sharp cultural clash is both political and the everyday stuff they have to deal with as they lead their lives.

Bunnie Rivera as Dolores, reluctant radical. Photo: Russell J Young

Set amid a two-year-long strike by cannery workers in the Pajaro Valley farm town of Watsonville in California’s Santa Cruz County, the play ripples with issues that have gained more and more urgency since the right-wing ascendancy that culminated in the national elections of 2016 and has been flexing its muscles ever since. Among them:

  • Union-busting and the economic revolution of wealth inequity that has weakened the middle and working classes and stripped away much of the post-World War II social safety net.
  • The rise of open and overt racism and the demonization of immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Latin American countries.
  • The heightened push to deport illegals, no matter how young they are or how crucial they might be to the work force, and what often seems almost a blood lust to break up families, deporting some members and leaving others in place.
  • The pro-business weakening of health and safety regulations that imperils both the land and ordinary people’s lives.
  • Gay and lesbian rights, and how they play in traditional religious cultures.

This checklist makes Watsonville sound like a political manifesto. It is, and it isn’t. Politically and culturally, there’s little question where Moraga stands. But she’s also here to tell some specific human stories, and they are apt to suck you in. Watsonville revolves around the life and times of one of the cannery workers, Dolores (Bunny Rivera), who enters the strike almost reluctantly but becomes one of its stalwart figures. Her embittered husband (Enrique Andrade) has been crippled in the mines, where safety measures are lax, and he no longer works: most of the cannery strikers are women, and many are their families’ sole support. Dolores’s children are victims of heavy pesticide use on the nearby farms. And, oh: In the midst of everything, Dolores discovers a vision of the Lady of Guadalupe on a tree in the park. (Yes, the play has some magical-realism elements.)

Patricia Alvitez (left) as Lucha, Rosalie Siler as Susana. Photo: Russell J Young

The cannery owners, who respond to the strikers’ demands by hiring scabs, are never seen, although in one of the scenes one of the young activists, JoJo (Matthew Sepeda), is attacked and beat up by a mob of thugs. We meet another striker, Dolores’s friend Amparo (Amalia Alarcón Morris); a union organizer, Chente (Feliciano Tencos-Garcia – the union, named in the play as the Teamsters, does not come out smelling entirely of roses); a wandering musician (Julio Cesar Velasquez); a former Jesuit priest, Juan (Osvaldo “Ozzie” Gonzalez), who now practices his liberation theology away from the embrace of the church; an activist and openly lesbian physicians’ assistant, Susana (Rosalie Siler, the daughter of Bunnie Rivera, who plays Dolores); and JoJo’s cannery-worker mom, Lucha (Patricia Alvitez), a political firecracker and a single mother who is the subject of rumors. As the relationships slowly develop, Lucha and Susana’s story eventually becomes almost co-equal with Dolores’s.

As is often the case in Milagro’s intimate space, the set design (by Mark Haack) is simple and adaptable, with a few rolling pieces, a cabinet/doorway that opens to a screen on which video clips can be projected, and a couple of side screens to announce scene changes. The talented director Elizabeth Huffman is back in town to pull the whole thing together, and she elicits some good performances while adeptly navigating the script’s effective switchbacks between Spanish and English, often within the same sentence. But there’s still a sense that the play is stuffed too full of ideas and incidents, and not all of it quite fits. A performance-within-the-performance, for instance, when a touring political theater company performs for the strikers in the commedia-influenced satiric style of El Teatro Campesino or the San Francisco Mime Troupe, is a little ungainly, never quite standing out as its own thing. And with so many storylines, it can be tough following where things are headed and easy to drop a stitch when you’re trying to put the pattern together. Then again, a strike isn’t a smooth and easy thing: It has prickles and edges and unresolved issues and an overload of emotions, and in the end, some things are gained and some things are lost. So maybe Watsonville, with all its messiness, is just about the shape it ought to be.

Feliciano Tencos-Garcia as union organizer Chente. Photo: Russell J Young

And there is this crucial truth: Watsonville bravely plays a crucial channel that far too many Americans, especially white Americans, routinely tune out. Its fictions reveal some stark facts that are core not only to Americans’ beliefs about who we are and what our collective responsibilities are, but also demand a response to the questions of what we want to be and what we’ll do to get there. Is the old and honorable idea of an open society that finds strength in its variety truly dead, or are we in the midst of a drawn-out strike that might realign our actions and beliefs? Moraga might be preaching to the choir. But it’s also possible that Watsonville will open some eyes that have only been sleeping.

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Watsonville: Some Place Not Here continues through May 26 at Milagro Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

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