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Manzi: The Adventures of Young Cesar Chavez by Teatro Bravo! Is a Family-Friendly, True-Life Fable in Campesino Style

Things that once seemed so clear, such as the vital roles played in U.S. history and culture by immigration and the labor movement, are a freakin' can of worms these days. But here at Curtains, none of that matters. Here, we review plays. Theater of the human condition. Theater that makes your human heart laugh and cry, like Teatro Bravo!'s current production, Manzi: The Adventures of Young Cesar Chavez.

As a boy, Cesario Chavez (who grew up and became civil rights leader and United Farm Workers co-founder César Chávez) lived with his parents and siblings on their Arizona farm. They worked hard, played together, swam in the canal, told scary stories, and slept under the stars. One day, during the Depression, a man drove up to tell the Chavez family they'd lost the farm, and they hit the road to become migrant workers in California.

Manzi, written by my old ASU classmate José Cruz Gonzalez, tells the story of young Cesario in the style of the UFW's original Teatro Campesino troupe (still going strong in San Juan Batista, California), with a simple setting of everyday objects such as boxes and bales of straw, minimal (but intelligent and deliberate) lighting and costuming, and small-scale, nearly hypnotic musical numbers (performed with the assistance and accompaniment of Carlos Urtubey) to emphasize crucial plot points.

The show clocks in at under an hour, and although it's meant to be something elementary school kids can follow, I still found it fascinating. This was largely because of the natural quality of the writing and the beautiful ease of the three lead performers: Adrian Hernandez, who plays Cesario; Erica Mathlin, who both narrates and flashes back as his sister Rita, and Mateo Perea, as their younger brother Richard.

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In contrast to last season's A Boy Named César, from New Carpa Theater Company (which followed the activist from boyhood to his later fame), the action here centers on just one big change in Chávez's life -- the transition from the relatively carefree state of security we think of as a "normal" childhood to a life in which migrants' children were ridiculed, abused, discriminated against, and worked half to death, never knowing where they would live next season, whether there would be enough work, or how they would be treated.

This slowed-down, pinpoint focus lets the hurt and indignities build in a way that clearly and obviously nurtures Chavez's spirit of justice and compassion. Having Rita Chavez Medina as our narrator is a lovely choice and honors her own contributions to the movement, as well as making the story more accessible to young viewers with her memories of her girlhood.

Manzi: The Adventures of Young Cesar Chavez continues through Sunday, September 19, at Metro Arts Institute, 1700 North Seventh Avenue. For tickets, $5 to $15, click here or call 602-258-1800.

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