By Patrick Hurley
In 1978, Luis Valdez wrote a play about the Chicano experience in 1940s Los Angeles. In 2017, the material is strikingly, and somewhat discouragingly relevant as ever. originally commissioned and developed by Center Theatre Group, Zoot Suit, playing now through April 2, at the Mark Taper Forum, originally went on to become Broadway’s first Chicano play.
Presented in association with El Teatro Campesino, this production stays true to the original, and in doing so feels slightly dated and yet completely germane to our current political anxieties. Set in 1942, the play is based on the Sleepy Lagoon Murder, where a young Latino man, Josè Diaz, was found murdered in Los Angeles. The murder led to the trial and conviction of 21 young men, all but one of whom were Latino. The case, among other factors, raised tensions between the police and the Latino community in Los Angeles, ultimately leading to the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943.
Following Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce), a young member of the Latino-based 38th street gang, the play is really two stories. One of family, loyalty, and community, and one of social justice. The family story deals with Henry’s brother Rudy (Andres Ortiz), who after Henry’s arrest, is attacked and stripped of his zoot suit, in a symbolic stripping of cultural identity, it leaves Rudy embittered and vengeful. Henry’s girlfriend, Della (Jeanine Mason) was with Henry on the night of the murder, but her testimony was completely manipulated by the state, and she ends up hurting him more than helping him in court.
Following Henry around is the mythical, and now iconic zoot suit clad El Pachuco (Demian Bichir), a physical representation of Henry’s sub-cultural identity. He is a spectral-like figure that speaks to Henry without code switching, a constant reminder of who he is. El Pachuco also serves as narrator, he addresses and refers to the audience, controls the action on stage, with a snap of his fingers he can pause or skip a scene, and he leads most of the musical numbers. The songs, with music by and Lalo Guerrero and lyrics by Luis Valdez, are less traditional musical theater and more Brechtian as they pull us out of the action, and are absolutely meant to. There is a distancing effect that occurs with the songs, as they are making a political or cultural statement, usually both, and so they steer us away from catharsis in true Brecht style. There are no easy answers for this play, and the cause that it’s still representing, and that people that are still fighting for it.
Told in a slightly fractured narrative, where flashbacks are sometimes employed by El Pachuco to show Henry’s story as he sits in jail awaiting his fate. Valdez does a commendable job with his direction, he keeps it very theatrical, employing broad and sometimes clichéd performances from his ensemble. But that is exactly the point. This play is political. It borders on agitprop, but is never allowed to take itself seriously enough, because it is rooted in allegory, it’s a kind of cultural fairy tale, complete with heroes, villains, tragedy and love. It’s also an anger-inducing true story of injustice, racism and hatred. It pushes both ways, and the tension created from this contradiction is partly what makes this play so wonderfully theatrical.
Choreographer Maria Torres creates some beautiful moments with the music. It has a large ensemble, and at times she fills the stage with joyous dancing which also heightens the theatricality of the piece.
The entire ensemble is wonderful. The standouts being Matias Ponce as Henry and Demian Bichir as El Pachuco. Ponce is excellent as a young man struggling with holding to his identity, we can see the struggle manifest in all of his mannerism, in his face, and ultimately in the emotional struggle that pays off perfectly in his last scenes. Demian Bichir fully embodies the iconic El Pachuco, he doesn’t have a single misstep, every tenacious ounce of him is infused with the symbolism of this archetype, an archetype that was created by Valdez at a moment when an entire community had none.
In the end, this production is an honorable remounting, of a towering achievement of a play. Zoot Suit stands as a landmark of Chicano theater and should not be missed.
Presented in Association with El Teatro Campesino
Written and Directed by Luis Valdez
Extended through April 2
(213) 628-2772 or online at http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
The Mark Taper Forum
135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.