After struggling at my computer’s keyboard for several hours yesterday trying to express my thoughts on the new production of Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum, I crawled into bed for a power nap to cool down my fevered brain. Two thoughts bubbled up from the depths of my consciousness. First, “Confess your deep connection to the play and to the extended family that is El Teatro Campesino.” Second, “Tell your readers what they need to know.”
It was my great good fortune, back in 2002, to be invited by Luis Valdez to take the role of activist lawyer George Shearer in a new production of Zoot Suit at El Teatro Campesino’s Playhouse in San Juan Bautista. The play had not been staged in quite a while and the audience response was tremendous. Some people travelled great distances to see the show; some even crossed the continent and a few crossed oceans. The show ran for six sold out months. Some people came back again and again drawn by the power of the story and the infectious theatricality of the production. And we did it again five years later.
ETC is a company like no other. Born of the struggle to unionize farm workers in the 1960s, the mission was, and is today, the quest for social justice; noble goals set by passionate people. What I found there was a company of deep and abiding love, a company that literally embraced a newcomer and made him part of the family. I had never been hugged so much in my entire lifetime. My eyes moisten at the recollection. Fortunately, what I need to impart to a reader is the true value of the script and the excellence of Center Theatre Group’s new production.
Set in a specific time and place — Los Angeles, California, 1942-44 — Luis Valdez’ Zoot Suit is a timeless classic. Its theme, the struggle of a downtrodden minority against the power of the state, the police and the courts, remains painfully relevant today. The play boasts a carefully crafted theatricality, Brechtian in style. The iconic character, El Pachuco (Demian Bichir), repeatedly reminds the audience that they are watching a play so that the critical message does not get lost in the powerful emotional response generated by the action. Mr. Valdez never forgets that theatre must be entertaining, so lively comedy, song and dance are woven into the dramatic action of the show.
In a notorious murder trial, seventeen zoot-suit-wearing Chicanos were put on trial for the bludgeon murder of another young man, José Díaz (renamed Jose Williams in the play) near a popular gathering place for teens called Sleepy Lagoon. The newspapers of the time ran lurid, hysterical stories about the murder, which roiled up public opinion against, not only the individuals on trial, but the Mexican American people in general. Eventually the animosity became so heated that in the summer of 1943 the notorious Zoot Suit Riots broke out, in which soldiers, sailors and civilians swarmed into the barrios and many other locations, where they beat up anyone wearing a zoot suit, often stripping them of their flashy clothes leaving them naked in the streets. The rioting went on for days and became front-page news, shoving war coverage below the fold.
In Zoot Suit, Luis Valdez creates a zoot-suited everyman in the person of Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce), a young man with a troubled past and well known to the LAPD. Reyna and three friends, Ismael “Smiley” Torres (Raul Cardona), Joey Castro (Oscar Camacho) and Tommy Roberts (Caleb Foote) represent the larger group that was put on trial. The sardonic character, El Pachuco, lives in the head of Henry Reyna and is seen and heard only by him, an alter ego that gives him both good and bad advice. Reminiscent of the Stage Manager in Our Town or the Chorus of Henry the Fifth, but far more intimate, he repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to address the audience. He is a profane type who utters amusing off-color comments. But he is deadly serious, clear-eyed in his assessment of a world stacked against the pachucos.
The powers ranged against the defendants — The Law, The Press and The Court— render the defendants powerless. The worst of this trio is The Press (Tom G. McMahon), who turns up later as the prosecutor in the trial. In both incarnations he spews lies and eventually has a verbal shouting match with El Pachuco who chases him into the audience. The police Lieutenant (Richard Steinmetz) morphs into the corrupt Judge and eventually the vicious Prison Guard. The dedicated lawyer George Shearer (Brian Abraham) and social activist Alice Bloomfield (Tiffany Dupont) doggedly defend the boys in court and raise money from like-minded people across the nation. On the domestic side, Henry Reyna has stern but loving parents (Daniel Valdez and Rose Portillo), a lovely girlfriend Della Barrios (Jeanine Mason), and a hero-worshipping younger brother, Rudy (Andres Ortiz).
Zoot Suit is a play with music served up in great style by Music Director Daniel Valdez (the original Henry Reyna), with classic pachuco songs of the period by Lalo Guerrero sung by El Pachuco and the Pachuca Trio of Fiona Cheung, Holly Hyman and Mariela Arteaga. The score also boasts original music by Mr. Valdez. His prison song “Hand Ball” is dynamite. The dancing, choreographed by Maria Torres, is spectacular.
Boasting a fine cast impeccably directed by the playwright, this production is an exquisite, shining jewel with a glistening, multilevel set by Christopher Acebo, and lighting by Pablo Santiago. Costumes by Ann Closs-Farley are period perfect and simply sumptuous. The sound design of Philip G. Allen is impeccable as is the projection design by David Murakami.
The Sleepy Lagoon murder trial is at the heart of the show. It is an infamous example of judicial bias and misconduct. It is important to know that all that is spoken in the trial scenes comes straight from the trial record. It is disheartening to reflect on these injustices, but we are an historically imperfect society. Although progress is too often two steps forward and one or two steps back, I prefer to think that the march toward social justice is relentless, that we strive onward towards a more perfect union. It takes vigilance and courage. ¡Viva la Huelga!
This production of Zoot Suit is a crowning achievement. Congratulations to Luis Valdez, El Teatro Campesino, and Center Theatre Group for reviving this American classic. Popular demand has extended the show through Friday, April 2 at the Mark Taper Forum in Downtown Los Angeles. See it while you can.