As I walked into a standing-room-only matinee of "Bitter the Fruit" last Sunday at the Broadway Playhouse, I turned to the house manager and said, "You guys don't need my review. Look at this!" And as I did look, I noticed it was the most ethnically diverse audience I have ever seen at a theatrical production in Santa Cruz.

Author/director Nicholas Constant describes the play as being about "People, Pesticides and Profit," with the subtitle; "Strawberries, the Ugly Truth." It is based on the true story of how a coalition of activists, union organizers and workers campaigned to get the chemical methyl bromide banned.

The afternoon began with UC Santa Cruz graduate Valentina de la Fuerta, an advocate for food justice who also plays Maria in the play, singing the "Weeping Woman" song, her father accompanying her on guitar. He explained that the song expressed the sorrow of postpartum depression. After that, Anna Lopez, professor at De Anza Community College and San Jose State University, gave us statistics regarding the state of farmworkers' health that were so chilling I teared up.

The play opens with student reporter Joe Donovan jogging and coming across Maria, collapsed in a field. She is too ill to go out to pick, and her crew has left her behind. She is undocumented and won't go to a clinic, so Joe gets her to a school. At the school, the nurse is quite busy with the children who have been poisoned by the previous night's leakage of methyl bromide from under the plastic covers of the strawberry fields. Two teachers, played by UCSC theater student Jill Turner as the older, wiser, more resigned of the two, and Becky Johnson of local Community Television, as the young, fiery Berkeley graduate, bemoaning the situation. This is the "Just the facts, ma'am" scene.

Following this is the "Gaia scene," where Maria tells her story and the ecology of the situation is explained. Joe interviews the agriculture commissioner, played by Mike Burch, who is smug and practiced at rattling off answers. There is some well-written sparring between the two in the "Bastards!" scene. At the home of a huge grower, who is about to throw a lavish spread for politicians and the press, Joe interviews Chaz Powell, played by Abe Lincoln yep in the "Patronizing Fat Cat Bigot" scene, who summons his field manager, Jesus, played by Argentinian Hugo Aceves, who delivers the propaganda he has been taught in the "Back on the Plantation" scene, followed by the "What Would Steinbeck Do?" scene.

The acting was somewhat uneven at the start of the play, but by the time the 1-hour, 45-minute ! first act was over, it had settled in. The second act is quite short. This is a benefit for the health needs of farmworkers' children. Bring friends who can afford the full $20!

if you go

'bitter the fruit'
written and directed by: Nicholas Constant
presented by: Performing Arts West and Workers' Theater
when: Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
where: Broadway Playhouse, 526 Broadway, Santa Cruz
cost: $9 to $20 general; $5 to $9 for low-income
details: 234-2067