April 23, 1993 is a date that may not ring a bell for most, but for many Latinos in the United States it has a special meaning. Cesar Chavez, the simple farmworker from Arizona who led a lengthy and ultimately successful fight for farmworker rights during the 1960s and ’70s, passed away on that day at 66 years of age.
A newly revised play that hits the stage of the Raven Theater next week, Cesar Died Today, is about a Hispanic family of the time, the three children of which are each keeping a secret. The matriarch enters a contest for Hispanic Family of the Year, but when she wins, the three children refuse to go along with it—for reasons of their own.
Co-writers of the play are Gabriel Fraire and John Fraire, brothers who both live in Healdsburg. Of the two, it’s Gabriel Fraire who is the more familiar presence in town. He first moved to Healdsburg in 1986 and has been a writer and editor ever since, including stints in the ’80s as editor for The Healdsburg Tribune and Windsor Times. He was even named Healdsburg’s Literary Laureate (2014-15). As recently as August, he read from the Gazebo stage for the annual Healdsburg Arts Festival.
“I’ve been a writer all my life—all my adult life,” said Fraire. “I went to a math and science high school, so there was no writing there.” He published his first short story in 1973, when he was 25; he has since written several other books on his own and two plays with his brother, John Fraire, an educator. The first, Who Will Dance With Pancho Villa?, was written in 1993, and the second, Cesar Died Today, followed two years later. Both were staged in New York.
Although the subject matter of his plays is political, or at least socially conscious, Fraire steps back from the activist role. “I am not an activist,” he told the Tribune. “I’m not politically involved. My wife’s extremely activist, but I’m not. Writing is my creative outlet. It’s something I do for myself. I don’t even care if anyone ever reads it.”
One might ask, then why write? “It’s great therapy and, most importantly, it’s a record of my life. I can look at my work through my history, and I know exactly where I lived at that time, and the work reflects what I was doing at that time.”
Whether a journal or a newspaper or a play or a novel, the writer not only keeps history alive but creates it. In another context, Fraire said, “Like I tell young people, history is made by the people who record it.”
Cesar Died Today was cultivated for the Raven Players by the ScripTease program, which solicits new plays for production, with an emphasis on local playwrights. Some of the plays get public readings—Cesar Died Today was first heard a little over a year ago in a sit-down reading at the theater, their first indoor event since March 2020. But only some get the stage treatment.
The play was then selected for staging by Raven Players artistic director Steven David Martin. As directed by Oz Montelongo Medina, it will be playing on the Raven stage on Jan. 19-22, and the following weekend in Cloverdale.
“While not technically a new play, Gabriel has revised Cesar, and this will be the first production of the new version of the script,” Martin told the Tribune. “In addition to being written by a local playwright, I also chose Cesar because it is a very theatrical piece with a touch of magic, great characters and features a Latino family, a segment of our audience we have been remiss in reaching out to in the past.”
Said Martin in a radio interview last year, “I know there’s a lot of Latino talent that hasn’t had access or a reason to go into the Raven Theater. One of the appeals of this play is, I know it sounds corny, is to appeal to the whole community, rather than just the 70% we’ve focused on the last umpteen years.”
Fraire is a bit less assured about how revised the play is. “I didn’t change any of it from the original production—oh, well, until they said, we wanted to update it. So, I threw in Oakland Raiders instead of the Bears. Little things like that.”
Still, notes Fraire, this will be the first West Coast production of the two brothers’ theatrical work. “We believe the issues we present are real and honest. And we know that Latinos need more representation in the arts.”
Cesar Died Today was first written 26 years ago, and for several years after that, he and his family lived in Greensboro, NC. “My wife’s parents were living in Greensboro, so we moved to Greensboro to help them with the ‘transition.’ And when they passed, we came back home,” to Healdsburg.
The 75-year-old writer has always identified as a Healdsburg resident, and still keeps busy. “I’ve got two big projects I’m working on now, one that has to do with family history, and then the other one is more about how I met my wife.”
According to his website, during the 2020 COVID lockdown, Fraire wrote two screenplays, one based on his book Mill Rats, and the other, titled Pancho Villa and the Stone of Faith, the story of a young Latina who gets transported in time to the Mexican Revolution.
Once again, it all ends up being about family. Gabriel Fraire is the eldest of seven; he and his wife, Karen, have three children, all daughters (and all Healdsburg High graduates). It makes one think that without family, even history means nothing.
‘Cesar Died Today’ will be performed at the Raven Theater, 115 North St., from Thursday, Feb. 19 through Saturday, Feb. 21 at 7:30pm, and Sunday, Feb. 22 at 2pm. It will also be staged the following weekend, Jan 28-29, at the Cloverdale Performing Arts Center, 209 N. Cloverdale Blvd.