My… ‘Between Dirt & Sky’

I am flying to San Francisco see the musical, Between Dirt & Sky. Traveling over 2,500 miles to see a show may seem excessive… until you understand that Between Dirt & Sky is a musical I have written with my writing partner and friend, Lisa Quoresimo.

While interviewing at San Jose Repertory Theatre in 1998, I was intrigued by a piece of public art. I saw a ribbon of granite and bronze inlaid into the concrete sidewalk along a wide public paseo through the center of town. Phases written in bronze within each ribbon told a story of a man dedicated to selflessly helping others. Each ribbon referred to the activist only as “He.”

The first ribbon that caught my eye read, “He spoke to the workers in Spanish. He spoke to the growers in English.” Ribbon after ribbon informed me that the elusive “he” organized marches to protest unfair hiring practices, fasted 36 days to end the use of pesticides sprayed while laborers worked in the fields, organized the National Grape Boycott. I was hooked. I walked through the heart of San Jose reading each snippet of story until I arrived in a beautiful park with rows of wisteria trees in bloom that led to a metal table with a cast metal hat anchored to its surface. There, on the table I learned the name of the man who so dramatically changed the lives of American farm workers…Cesar Chavez.

There at that table, was my first history lesson about with work of Cesar Chavez. Fascinated, I walked directly to the public library to begin research.

A few weeks later while brainstorming a subject for our first collaborative musical with writing partner Lisa Quoresimo, I brought up the idea of writing a musical inspired by the life of Cesar Chavez. Separated from the man by ethnicity and a generation, we were hesitant about proceeding. But there was something universal about the story that kept drawing us back. Within a few months, we were both steadfastly committed to writing a show with Cesar as the protagonist.

Cesar Chavez could have been any man or woman at any time, who stood up to help when they could have just walked by those in need. Cesar Chavez’s life had inspired us. We wanted to inspire others by telling the story of someone who gave everything he had to bring together people of all ethnicities and social strata to advocate for fair working conditions for American farm workers.

Lisa and I delved deep into our research and began writing the musical. Our concept was that each character’s musical voice would erupt from the music listened to by their real life counterparts. Cesar Chavez loved swing music and dancing…a love that continued as his granddaughter later informed us. She told us of being grounded and seeing her grandfather Cesar arriving with his portable turntable and swing records to teach her to swing dance. In one scene, Cesar is alone in a jail cell after attempting to sit in the “whites only” section of a movie theatre. While contemplating how to reach for the American dream, Cesar sings “Is It Enough?”, a song that we modeled after the music of his favorite composer, Duke Ellington.

Our overall goal was to tell the story of a person making a monolithic choice to commit their life to doing good for others. We wanted to explicate the influences that went into that type of decision, the results of the work and the personal struggles that accompany such strident dedication.

We were thrilled when the musical was selected for its amateur premiere at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco in 2003. But we were anxious as to how it would be received, especially when the theater arranged to have representatives from the Chavez family, the Chavez Foundation, La Paz, the Delores Huerta Foundation and Margaret Cruz attend the premiere. We were thrilled when they all warmly endorsed the show.

The show was so well received, that Comcast and History San Jose sponsored the re-mounting of the production at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose about a month later.

We were delighted even further the morning of the San Jose show’s opening when Cesar Chavez’s siblings, Rita Chavez Medina and Librado Chavez, took us along with the show’s actors on a tour of San Jose…where Chavez first began his community organizing work with the Community Service Organization.

With people so close to Cesar Chavez in attendance that evening, Lisa and I were again anxious about creating a show inspired by the life of a man we had never met. But as the last note of the last song was still ringing out across the auditorium, Caesar’s brother, Librado stood up and shouted, “Viva la Causa!” The audience erupted into cheers and shouts of approval. After the show Rita Chavez Medina kissed both my cheeks and thanked us for “making Cesar a real flesh and blood man.” I still cannot fully express my satisfaction and joy in that moment.

Later that evening, a grandfather pulled me aside to tell me that his grandson pleaded urgently to be taken to the stage after the show. The grandfather – thinking that the young boy had been bitten by the theater bug – asked his grandson if he wanted to be an actor. “No,” his grandson told him, “I want to help those people.”

Even as I type that, I begin again to shed happy tears. We had come full circle. We had been inspired to write a musical to share a humbling story of a man who helped others. Now, our musical had engaged and inspired another to help.

Between Dirt & Sky was selected to be workshopped at the Ground & Field Theatre Festival at UC Davis last fall. At the festival, we were able to further develop the show with an ensemble of actors and amazing directors. The workshop helped us to trim fat, test our commitment to our characters and scenes and heighten musical elements.

All that is left is to fly to California to see our revised musical at Brava Theater Center in San Francisco. It is thrilling and slightly daunting. My only expectation is to be perched on seat’s edge in a dark theater, alongside my writing partner and our families, prepared to watch a show celebrating personal engagement in our world. I am certain we will again fall in love with these amazing, complex, brave and fun characters. And – if we are very lucky – we may again inspire others ponder what thing they might do – large or small – to make the world a better place for all.