Brown Bag Theater Co.'s Theater of the Trabajadores

When asked what percentage of UC Irvine's service workers are Latino, Amanda Novoa thinks for a moment, then says, “Well, just by looking, I'd say 98 percent, but I'm just making that up.”

She's being facetious, but the intent is clear: A huge portion of the people who prepare meals, clean bathrooms and mow grass on the sprawling campus of more than 23,000 students is Latino. That's why it makes sense that Brown Bag Theater Co., a group of students and faculty advisers using theater to promote diversity, is putting its creative focus on a part of the campus population that is always seen but rarely heard.

“Some people who heard about this project were like, 'Why would you want to talk about that?'” says Novoa, who, along with Julianna Ojeda, is co-director of the student-created play The Service Workers Project, Contra La Corriente—Against the Current, which opens Friday. “But that's kind of the point. These are people who make the university function; they are there every day, and if they're not there, things do not go well. So it's about thanking them—not just UCI service workers, but service workers in general. It's about not ignoring them, about letting people know they have lives, families, struggles, a voice that needs to be heard, and that they're very proud of what they've accomplished.”

The company, which was formed three years ago by UCI professor Lonnie Alcaraz, a longtime lighting designer at South Coast Repertory and other top theaters across the country, didn't set out to produce a play about the strikes and protests that convulsed the UCI campus in 2010 (including a sit-in by workers and students that resulted in 17 arrests that February).

“We didn't set out to tell a story about a strike; we set out to tell the service workers' stories,” Alcaraz says. “We wanted to engage with the community, and when you do that to create a play, there are so many ways to get it wrong and not a lot of ways to get it right.”

The key to making it right, Alcaraz says, is “not going in with an agenda, but to hear their stories. We didn't go in and say, 'We wanted to know about your plight at the university.' We want to get to know [them].”

Using those stories as inspiration, playwright Wind Woods, who is working on a Ph.D. from UCI's theater department, crafted a story about events leading up to one strike. “It's not any specific year or any specific strike, but it is the idea of workers uniting and striking and being successful in asking for something they deserved,” Novoa says. “And we've taken a very artistic, creative approach to the story, something that you have to use your imagination for.”

The wounds of the bruising battle for the service workers' rights are still fresh. Though dining workers were the first in-sourced in 2006, it took strikes, protests and sit-ins to get all the workers recognized. “There was a lot of noise,” Novoa says. It wasn't until 2012 that the final group, custodial workers, was made campus employees, with perks such as benefits and sick days. (UCI was the last UC campus to in-source its service workers.)

Though events and personalities leading up to one strike is the plot of Brown Bag's play, its deeper chords and rhythms have more to do with something Alcaraz, Novoa and the rest of the 30-person club realized about the service workers: the deep sense of familia.

“Obviously, within the Hispanic culture, family is very important, but the service workers have two families: one on campus and one at home,” Alcaraz says. “Many of them work with their cousins, brothers and sisters, and what we found is that they were so open [to] welcoming us into that family.”

Through the process, Novoa, who also served as community-engagement coordinator, met with many service workers, both in organized parties attended by club members and service workers and their families, as well as on her own, attending birthday parties and weddings. Through her outreach, she estimates she got to know more than 100 people. And what she discovered helped put something big in perspective.  

“In spending so much time with them and seeing how focused they are and so loving to one another, it really made me view my own life,” she says. “The person is more important than anything else, and even in their jobs, they focus on family and their relationships. And that is so different from our world, which is so fast-paced and about getting things done and work and money. They just have a very different outlook on life, and it actually made me sort of jealous.”

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