An eye-popping new production of Zoot Suit, written and directed by Luis Valdez, is the hot ticket in L.A. these days!
The musical play, staged with a company of 25 actors, singers and dancers weaving fact and fiction to portray the events surrounding the infamous 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder case in Los Angeles, forms part of Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum’s 50th anniversary season. It is presented in association with El Teatro Campesino, the farm workers’ theatre founded by Valdez in 1965 which still continues its work.
Filled with period music and the tuneful songs of Lalo Guerrero, Zoot Suit urgently demonstrates the clash between generations in a Chicano family, the rifts between communities in America, and the ways racism and bias can impact a society.
The play originated at the Mark Taper Forum in 1978, went on to a long run at the Aquarius Theatre in L.A., a production on Broadway (its first Chicano play), and a film version.
The 1942 case caught up a group of young Mexican Americans in a frenzy of inflammatory racist fear-mongering over a murder under circumstances that could never be precisely determined. Sentenced to life in prison, they attracted the attention of lawyers and civil libertarians, families of the convicted men, a defense committee committed to appeal the case, progressive film stars, and the passionate advocacy of the Jewish Communist reporter Alice Greenfield McGrath (1917-2009), whose articles in the People’s World (mentioned many times in the play) kept the scandalous injustice before its readers for over two years until it was finally resolved.
Filled with period music and the tuneful songs of Lalo Guerrero, Zoot Suit urgently demonstrates the clash between generations in a Chicano family, the rifts between communities in America, and the ways racism and bias can impact a society. No updating is required for theatergoers to appreciate the contemporary relevance.
As Pomona College history professor Tomás F. Summers Sandoval said at a forum about the play on Feb. 13, by 1942, Mexican Americans, despite being among the original founders of L.A., had come to be seen as foreigners, a largely segregated quarter of a million people mostly invisible in the corridors of authority and power in a city of then 1.5 million.
At that panel, playwright Luis Valdez recalled that he was living in L.A. in 1943 as a young boy, but his family left for the Central Valley because of urban violence. He befriended a young Chicano named C.C. who, upon returning home from military service (1946-48) still in uniform, was arrested one day because he sat in the middle of a movie theatre in Delano. That area was off-limits to Chicanos. But no actual law existed against sitting there, simply long-held tradition, and C.C. was released. The following week Chicano teenagers sat wherever they wanted in theatres, and that’s how desegregation happened. Only later did Valdez learn that his friend C.C. had “become” César Chávez.
At a time during World War II when fabric was being rationed, the zoot suit appeared to transgress the nation’s priorities with its excess yardage. It became the virtual uniform of young people in popular culture, and not just Pachucos, the term for a particular subculture of Chicanos and Mexican-Americans associated — in fact or in the popular mind — with street gangs, nightlife, and flamboyant public behavior. In reality, the clothing style originated with African Americans on the East Coast as a sign of urban sophistication, later becoming criminalized by the media and legal authorities owing to its racial and cultural associations. Men wearing a zoot suit were regularly surrounded by rioting white gangs and literally stripped naked on the street, robbed of their possessions, spirit and identity.
With all the false narratives about Pachucos as a criminal menace and security threat, military men stationed in the L.A. area during WW II honestly believed — especially if they’d been drinking — that they were doing their job by piling on them. After vicious assaults broke out in L.A., race riots spread to other cities. Chicanos could rightly feel conflicted when asked to serve in a war for democracy that did not embrace them at home.
How different is that today, asked Valdez, when right next to Delano, and all across California, new prisons have been built to contain all the “undesirable” elements the media and the law have identified as criminal?
Recommended for You
By the late 1960s the Teatro Campesino had already toured Europe eight times before it became well known in the U.S. beyond California’s Central Valley. The renowned British director Peter Brook spent the summer of 1973 in the town of San Juan Bautista with the group, which came to the attention of Gordon Davidson of the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., which commissioned Zoot Suit. At the original production, as Michael Ritchie, current Center Theatre Group artistic director, stated, some in the audience came to see their own story on stage, and the rest came to see other people’s stories. And on both sides they saw the story as ultimately about our common humanity, the recognition that we all want basically the same things in life.
Ritchie pointed out that though the story takes place in 1942-44, and was first produced in 1978 subtitled as “a new American play,” much of the script sounds as though it could be written today. Bottom line, it’s an American story: Mexican-Americans, like other “hyphenated” groups, are a part of the culture, fabric and future of this country. The point was not to exclude anyone, but to include everyone. In its specificity, Zoot Suit becomes universal.
Valdez studied the archival record of the Sleepy Lagoon case, incorporating passages into his play from letters between the Defense Committee and the imprisoned Chicano youth, as well as from the trial, contemporary newspapers and other documents. The result was creative fiction strongly based on facts, with some names changed to permit more artistic license. At that time, many of the principals in the case were still living, such as the writers Carey McWilliams and Guy Endor, Alice McGrath and the Arab-American lead attorney George Shibley (Alice Bloomfield and George Shearer in the play), and members of the Leyva family on whom the lead defendant Henry Reyna’s family is based.
Who is El Pachuco?
El Pachuco was famously played in the first production by Edward James Olmos, and now by the renowned Mexican actor Demian Bichir. But who, really, is he? The soul of Mexicanidad in an alien society? The permanent outsider? The cynical, armored macho individualist, the go-it-alone rebel? Some part messiah, Everyman, trickster? A sort of self-destructive Dean of Hard Knocks? A modern priestly avatar of ancient lost pre-Columbian cultures, posing with his bizarre costume, stance and intricate gestures? The consciousness ofRaza in the collective mind, the little angel and devil who make their home on our shoulders and whisper unasked-for counsel into our ears?
The performance on Feb. 14th turned out to be an exciting one, a reunion of as many of the cast members from previous productions as could be found. The audience was palpably energized by the electrifying happening on stage. Luis’ brother David Valdez, a cofounder of the Teatro Campesino, an actor, musician and composer in this spectacle commented at the talkback afterward, “Zoot Suit is not really a play, it’s an event, a magical thing.” Bichir chimed in, calling it “a revolutionary act.”
High fashion of the 1940s plays a critical, indeed the title role in this spectacle, extravagantly rendered by Ann Closs-Farley. Jessica Mills’ period wigs top off the classic profiles. Almost 40 years since the first production, theatre design has taken giant leaps forward: The new multi-level scenic design by Christopher Acebo makes full use of the Taper stage capabilities.
The generous musical component of the play contributes mightily: Almost every dramatic scene is punctuated by commentary in dance or song. It’s a fascinating sensual and historical experience studded with many detailed individual performances far too numerous to mention.
Aside from Bichir as El Pachuco, the cast includes major roles played by Brian Abraham, Mariela Arteaga, Demian Bichir, Melinna Bobadilla, Oscar Camacho, Stephani Candelaria, Raul Cardona, Fiona Cheung, Tiffany Dupont, Caleb Foote, Holly Hyman, Rocío López, Jeanine Mason, Tom G. McMahon, Andres Ortiz, Matias Ponce, Rose Portillo, and Daniel Valdez.
Zoot Suitplays at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A., through March 26. For tickets and information visit CenterTheatreGroup.org or call (213) 628-2772.
Eric A. Gordon