The tomato harvest is in full swing. By the time the pickers make it back to camp, their hands are scratched, their backs weary from bending. Yet tonight their mood is buoyed by the sounds of a band tuning up. Children take seats in the dirt before a makeshift stage. Teatro Nuestro has come to Dixon, Calif.—one of 29 stops on its seasonal tour through the farm labor camps of the Far West.
The dusty camp is a far cry from the comfortable homes in L.A. and New York City where Teatro co-founder Cheyney Ryan, 41, grew up, but he is following a family tradition. His father, the actor Robert Ryan, was nearly as well known for his social and political activism as for his performances as a psychotic Marine in Cross fire (1947) and as the sinister rancher in Bad Day at Black Rock (1954). As a student, Cheyney spent summers in Appalachia building roads and was dismissed from Harvard for protesting the Vietnam War. Graduating from Boston University, he went on to earn his Ph.D. in philosophy and become a professor at the University of Oregon—where he also wrote plays and musical skits, most recently with a political cabaret group called On the Edge.
In 1985 actor Ernesto Ravetto, Ryan’s frequent collaborator, suggested Cheyney write a play about pesticides. Born in Argentina, Ravetto had both worked as a migrant laborer and visited labor camps doing education outreach. He was dismayed that Mexican workers did not understand the dangers in the fields. “Information about pesticides isn’t accessible to people, because it’s in English,” says Ryan. “We try to show how something like pesticides, which seems very abstract, can disrupt the life of a normal family.”
Funded with a patchwork of small grants from the states of Oregon and California, Teatro Nuestro first went on the road in 1986. So far, the troupe has spent four harvest seasons traveling from Oregon to the Mexican border, performing for some 15,000 people. Ryan says he writes “simple family stories” that weave in music and humor while imparting useful information about serious matters. In this year’s play, La Boda (The Wedding), the Sanchez family grapples with a daughter’s pesticide poisoning and her father’s threatened deportation. “That was my family out there,” said one deeply moved farm worker in Dixon.
After most performances, doctors describe the effects of pesticides and lawyers explain that employers are required to provide protective clothing. “Farm workers do have rights,” says Jose Padilla of California Rural Legal Assistance. “Teatro Nuestro has been the best way to put that message out.”
Unfortunately, its lease on life is always a slender one. “This is a mom-and-pop cottage industry,” explains Ravetto, whose artist wife, Kris, designed some of the costumes. Ryan’s wife, Alexis, an executive recruiter, photographs some of the performances, while Cheyney spends much of his time writing grant proposals to cover Teatro Nuestro’s $90,000 annual budget. He may have to scrounge harder next year, because the group has been invited to tour New Mexico and Florida. But he knows that one play is worth a thousand public information pamphlets because, says Ryan, “we play to people’s hearts.”
—Andrea Chambers, Cindy Ruskin in Dixon