Cesar and Ruben Selected for Kennedy Center Regionals


The Santa Monica College production of ““Cesar and Ruben,” a musical about civil rights leader Cesar Chavez written and co-directed by Emmy nominee Ed Begley, Jr., has been selected for the prestigious 2012 Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival’s regional competition.

“Cesar and Ruben,” an award winning and critically praised musical, was mounted at SMC in October, with Theatre Arts chair Perviz Sawoski co-directing with Begley. The production not only received wide praise but also broke box office records at SMC. 

“We are thrilled to be taking this play to the regional competition,” Sawoski said. “The production was a labor of love for all of us, and we are proud to have given new life to the piece with a reshaped script.”

“Cesar and Ruben” is one of 11 plays selected from 178 productions at 49 colleges and universities judged throughout the western region: Southern California, Southern Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Hawaii. The entries at the regional festival – which will be held

Feb. 7-11 at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah – will be judged for possible selection to be performed this spring at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Fundraising performances of the play will be held at the college prior to the festival – at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 29 in the SMC Theatre Arts Main Stage on the main campus, 1900 Pico Blvd. Tickets are $30. Call (310) 434-4319 Monday through Friday or go to www.smc.edu/theatre

This is the first SMC Theatre Arts Main sStage production to be selected for the regional competition since “Vanya” was chosen in 1999. The Studio Stage production of “Slavery,” which was written by then-SMC student Jonathan Payne, went to the regionals in 2002 and went on to make it to the finals at the Kennedy Center. “Once on this Island,” a musical directed by Sawoski, also made it to the Kennedy Center, in  1997 (the only selection that year from a community college).

“Cesar and Ruben” chronicles the life of Chavez through music, imagery and a conversation with slain Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Salazar, who often wrote about Chavez. The show mixes humor and drama, music and dance, history and personal struggles, with songs in Spanish – and supertitles in English – by Sting, Ruben Blades, Carlos Santana and more. It also features a multi-ethnic cast of 26 and a significant audio-visual component.

The performances at SMC drew a number of celebrities and United Farm Workers officials, including co-founder Dolores Huerta.

Both Sawoski and Begley said their partnership was an ideal match.

“Perviz is so wonderful to work with,” Begley said. “And the students are amazing, so talented, energetic and eager to get this play up and running.” 

Begley, who has been an activist and leader in the environmental movement through such organizations as Heal the Bay since 1970, first met Chavez in the early 1980s.

“Cesar told me, ‘I love that you’re saving whales and the oceans, but what about people?’” Begley recalled. When Chavez told him about the health hazards of pesticides on farmworkers, Begley was immediately intrigued and thus began a 10-year friendship and activist partnership that would last until Chavez’s death in 1993. 

“I had the sadness and honor of carrying his coffin in Delano,” Begley said. “But what really struck me was when I looked back, there were thousands of people, as many as 35,000, in the funeral procession behind me. It was powerful.”

Yet, it wasn’t until several years later that Begley had the idea to write a play about Chavez’s life. An actor who first came to audiences’ attention for his portrayal of Victor Ehrlich on the long-running hit television series “St. Elsewhere,” and who has appeared in many major films, TV shows and plays, Begley had not previously written a play.

“Cesar and Ruben” had its world premiere in 2003 at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, playing for nine weeks to packed houses.  In 2007, after Begley did some rewrites and adjustments, the play opened at the NoHo Arts Center for an eight-week run to critical acclaim. It won a Nos Otros Award and four Valley Theater League Awards. The musical also received a production at St. Edwards University in Texas.

The birth of the play’s revival at SMC began more than a year ago when Begley met with officials at The Broad Stage at the SMC Performing Arts Center that in turn led to a meeting with Sawoski.

The script appealed to Sawoski because “the topic was interesting, the message is good and strong, and I usually have an affinity for something that is new and unknown.”

The two worked together over several months to further refine and streamline the script, change the beginning and ending, and – most importantly to Begley – have all the songs performed in Spanish. (In previous productions, one-third of the songs were performed in English.)

Sawoski has also put her imprimatur on the show with her background in global dance styles, choreographing numbers inspired by flamenco, Mexican folklórico, Afro-Cuban and even Irish styles.