Remembering Diane Rodriguez: Truth Teller, Actress, Director, Playwright

Diane Rodriguez has died at the age of 68. (Courtesy of Center Theatre Group)

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In the late 1970s I was living in Sacramento, and one summer night El Teatro Campesino came to town. The company had been founded in the 1960s by Luis Valdez to bring attention to the plight of farmworkers, and they often performed on flatbed trucks parked alongside fields where the workers labored.

But, on this night, the company was in the state capitol to perform one of Valdez's plays, "Mundo Mata" (The World Kills). And on the stage was a young actress with a captivating and energetic presence. Her name was Diane Rodriguez.

Image from an essay about the Latino Theater Initiative (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

I didn't meet her until about a dozen years later. By then, I was an editor at the Los Angeles Times Calendar section, and she was co-director of the Latino Theatre Initiative at the Mark Taper Forum. Her job was to help playwrights develop new work — and she did that throughout her 24-year tenure at Center Theatre Group.

And she simultaneously kept a career as an actress, playwright and director, working here in L.A., around the country, and internationally. Not quite three years ago, she was a guest on KPCC's The Frame, talking about a play she'd written and directed titled "The Sweetheart Deal." The play, set in 1970, focused on a Mexican-American couple who trade their cozy lives in San Jose for a small, dusty Central Valley town to volunteer for the United Farm Workers.

It was a personal story:

"In 1970, my aunt and uncle, Liz and Frank Rodriguez, went to volunteer for the UFW and they ended up working for the [union newspaper] ... and that was the impetus for my play.

"I first saw El Teatro Campesino when I was in [college], and my cousins were touring with the company. So it was part of my family history — I saw my cousins and it was like, That's what I want to do! It was a natural evolution to join the company after I finished school."

Diane was a truth teller and she wasn't afraid to speak truth to power. In 2016, I recruited her to attend a KPCC Leadership Circle Brunch, where she would be interviewed by The Frame's host, John Horn. John asked her how she managed to keep one foot in grassroots community theater, while also working at a mainstream theater institution. Her answer:

"At Center Theatre Group, and so many theaters across the country, you'll sit at artistic staff meetings and talk about the box office. We worry, because we have to stay alive that way, but yet we always have to pull ourselves out of that conversation and talk about how we're achieving our mission.

"What happens is that, in nonprofit theater, we've become more about giving people privilege. We have development departments that take up the whole top floor of our area to serve the donors. That's so wrong. And yet, you're giving your money because you believe in the trajectory of how this company, this organization, serves the community.

"So instead of you being a VIP because you give money, the VIP should be that person who walks into the door and has never attended the theater before. That's the VIP."

Diane Rodriguez (Courtesy of Center Theatre Group)

Those comments aired on The Frame and they didn't sit well with a few CTG board members. Some, Diane told me, wanted her fired. But CTG artistic director Michael Ritchie knew Diane's value to the organization. She stayed for another three years and resigned last summer, on her own terms.

Of course, it would not have looked good to fire a member of the National Council on the Arts, appointed by President Obama. And she was also a former president of Theater Communications Group, an influential national service organization. In short, she was a force. And today, Ritchie mourned her passing:

"Diane was an incredibly disciplined artist, with equal talent as a writer, director and actor. But she was never more animated than when she was advocating for the work of other artists. The arts community mourns the loss of a leader and advocate for accessibility, inclusion and community."

***

On a personal level, Diane was warm and friendly, with a smile and laugh that lit up the room. Her father was from Texas, where I'm from, and she would joke that I looked like her cousins. She and her devoted husband, José Delgado (also an accomplished cultural worker), graciously hosted my wife and me on a couple of occasions, including one memorable New Year's Eve when we watched fireworks from the roof of their Echo Park home.

I last saw Diane in December. I was unaware that she'd been battling cancer for more than a year. (Only a small circle of family members and friends knew.) And she was her usual energetic self. She'd asked me to meet over coffee to discuss a major concern of hers: the lack of racial, ethnic and gender diversity among the leaders of the major cultural institutions in Southern California. It bothered her deeply, and she was ready to launch a crusade.

And she would draw from the lessons she learned from working with El Teatro Campesino. As that company's founder, Luis Valdez, said today: "The arc of her evolution as an artist and as a representative of the American theatre will give hope and inspiration to new generations of theatre artists. We shall never forget her as long as we live because she was an intrinsic part of our life and joy in our creative being. May the creator speed her to cosmic rebirth."

Diane Rodriguez fought the good fight. To the very end.

Oscar Garza is Senior Producer of KPCC's entertainment show The Frame.

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