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‘Seismic’ loss: Diane Rodriguez, longtime champion of theater artists of color, dies

Diane Rodriguez
Diane Rodriguez
(Center Theatre Group)

Diane Rodriguez, a celebrated stage artist, passionate for the work of Latino and Latina artists and former associate artistic director of Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, died Friday. She was 68.

Rodriguez, who had been part of the artistic staff of Center Theater Group for 24 years and had worked with other major companies across the country, died of cancer, former colleagues said.

For the record:

11:18 PM, Apr. 12, 2020An earlier version of this article referred to Teatro Luna as Teatro Luno.

During her extensive career, she performed in, directed or produced projects with top artists including playwrights Luis Valdez and Young Jean Lee and the group Culture Clash.

“Diane was an incredibly disciplined artist, with equal talent as a writer, director and actor,” said CTG Artistic Director Michael Ritchie. “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.”

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After studying theater at UC Santa Barbara, Rodriguez became a leading actress for 10 seasons with the groundbreaking theater company El Teatro Campesino, the Farmworkers’ Theater where Valdez was founder and artistic director. Rodriguez also was a co-founder of the comedy troupe Latins Anonymous.

“Diane Rodriguez was an unforgettable and beloved member of the family of El Teatro Campesino,” Valdez said. “We remember her from her earliest days as a professional artist in the ’70s, when she became a vital and indispensable part of our core company.”

“Her power as an artist came from the heart, which she shared onstage as well as in life, by generating the collective spirit that creates theater. The arc of her evolution as an artist and as a representative of the American theater will give hope and inspiration to new generations of theater artists.”

As associate artistic director at CTG, Rodriguez had overseen the production of new plays and had helped developed the work of more than 75 artists, playwrights and companies. Her projects included “Straight White Men” by Lee, “The White Album” by Lars Jan and “Venice is Dead” by Roger Guenveur Smith and Richard Montoya, the latter a member of Culture Clash.

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“I walked into a costume shed at El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista a nervous kid 40 years ago, she gave me a sash and confidence and told me to get back into rehearsal with veteran triple threat L.A. actors,” Montoya said in a statement. “She directed Culture Clash with such brilliant panache in Pasadena [Playhouse] we could only hug and laugh at the finish line. The loss is seismic.”

In recent years, she also had written and directed plays centered on strong Latinas. “Living Large” which premiered at Teatro Luna in 2012, was about a Latina widow trying to deal with difficulties, and “Itch” was about a social justice worker trying to break through the glass ceiling. Another play, “The Sweetheart Deal,” premiered in 2017 at Los Angeles Theatre Center.

“I want to write plays about the middle class and struggle,” she said in a 2018 interview for the National Endowment for the Arts. “There’s a huge strata of Latinas that live in the United States who’ve gone to school, who are middle class, who are very invested in American values, and who we never see onstage or in film. They were important for me to write about, and they continue to be important for me to write about.”

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She added: “I like women who have a lot to learn. I like women who learn how to listen deeply. I like women who have a sense of humor. I think that humor is the biggest weapon to change people’s minds.”

Diane Rodriguez and playwright Young Jean Lee during rehearsal for “Straight White Men” at Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum in 2015.
(Craig Schwartz)

Her directing career included productions for Pasadena Playhouse, East West Players, South Coast Repertory and Center Theatre Group.

Rodriguez also wrote and consulted on scripts for Mattel’s live Barbie productions including “Barbie Live!” She was a consultant on the animated Disney series “Elena of Avalor” about a Latina princess.

Born June 22, 1951, in San Jose, Rodriguez said being a Latina had shaped her creative direction.

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“I was going to go to graduate school,” she said in the NEA interview. “I applied to California Institute of the Arts, and I got turned down. The alternative was to join El Teatro Campesino — that was the best thing that ever happened to me. It opened my eyes to possibility, but it also rooted me in home, and in where I came from. It rooted me in the fields that my parents worked in, in the canneries that my mother toiled in as we were growing up.”

She added, “I never forgot the roots that I came from as I was launched into the world. Even now, even when I’m not necessarily doing Latino-specific work, those roots keep me anchored.”

Rodiguez is survived by her husband, Jose Delgado, owner of Pleiades Management and producing director of Ojai Playwrights Conference; her mother, Helen E. Rodriguez; her niece Gabrielle E. Fusco and nephew Mario J. Fusco; and brother-in-law Gary Fusco.


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