Zoot Suit: Written by Luis Valdez, Directed by Kirsten Brandt
San Diego Repertory Theater Lyceum Stage; Performances thru August 12th
Set in the barrios of Los Angeles, Zoot Suit takes us back to the early 1940’s and dramatizes a portion of American history in which anti-Mexican prejudice affected the courts, the press, and the attitudes of the general public. Although the show was first performed in Los Angeles more than three decades ago, (It went on to be the only Chicano theater piece ever to go to Broadway), the current version staged at the San Diego Repertory Theatre demonstrates its enduring power as a window into history with relevant lessons for today’s cultural and political realities.
The SD Rep version skillfully combines a compelling history lesson, authentic-feeling slices from the lives of the characters, along with eye-popping song and dance numbers that move the show smoothly through what might otherwise be a pedantic political polemic. Integrated into the cast with equity actors are students from San Diego’s own School of the Creative and Performing Arts(SCPA). A live orchestra composed entirely of SCPA students plays throughout the show, giving the musical numbers an added punch.
The Zoot Suiters of the day were also known as pachucos, a term derived from the Mexican city Pachuca; a poor, overcrowded community with a reputation for being a tough and often unsavory place. For many older Mexicans, the term meant the “poorest of the poor,” or “riff-raff.” But a younger generation adopted the term as a symbol of pride in their humble origins. These proud young men & women were viewed as threat to society by the dominant white Angelinos. People of color were supposed to know their place, and besides, with the nation at war, weren’t these uppity types really serving the Jap/Nazi/Commie threat?
In addition to their name, pachucos were identifiable by their clothes; high-waisted, wide-legged, tight-cuffed pegged trousers, a long coat with wide lapels, wide padded shoulders, a fedora hat adorned with a long feather and pointy, French-style shoes. Zoot suits usually featured a watch chain dangling from the belt to the knee or below, then back to a side pocket.
The play centers around the life and family of Zoot Suiter Henry Reyna (inspired by real-life defendant Henry Leyvas). He and his “gang” are accused of the murder of a rival “gangster” after a party, the final act of a long running series of harassment by the police that started when Henry was busted for auto theft while leaning against his father’s car. A precursor to the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, the murder was sensationalized in the press as the “Sleepy Lagoon case”. After a complete farce of a trial, where the prosecution and judge openly play upon the prevailing racism of the day, the gang is thrown in San Quentin for a murder they did not commit.
The play is largely narrated by El Pachuco, an idealized Zoot Suiter invisible to all but Henry, who functions as Henry’s alter-ego, master of ceremonies and the embodiment of ancient Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca, god of the night. An ongoing narrative of public opinion is presented as news headlines ripped from the actual newspapers of the era by a reporter whose bias is worn as a badge of honor.
The powers that be in Los Angeles may have wanted Henry and his cohorts in jail, but there were in the community who saw through the racism of the situation. Enter lawyer George Shearer who’s retained to seek some justice for the wrongly accused pachucos. He has to struggle against the blatant racism of the court and somehow convince Henry, et. al. that he’s really on their side. Shearer hires Alice Bloomfield, activist, idealist and reporter for the Daily Worker, to assist in the defense. She forms a defense committee, attracts A-List Hollywood celebrities (Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Nat King Cole, and Anthony Quinn) to support the cause and even starts a monthly newsletter to keep the cause in the public’s mind after the conviction. She becomes a frequent correspondent with, and visitor of, the Sleepy Lagoon defendants at San Quentin.
The Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee was charged with being a Communist-front organization, and the FBI conducted surveillance of its members. For those of you who haven’t familiarized yourselves with the history of the era, it’s quite probable that the Communist Party (CP-USA) of that day was deeply involved with committee. During the 1930s and 40s, communists were one of the very few groups openly opposing racial inequality, and the blatant injustice of the Sleepy Hollow case was a made to order scenario for their efforts to organize a mass movement. (Although many of the Americans involved with the CP-USA were, in fact, dedicated to the fight against racism, it is also true that the Party’s leadership saw the inequalities in the US as an opportunity to rebut critics of Stalinist domestic programs.)
As the play progresses, we learn details about the Zoot Suit Riots, where military personal formed into mobs that roamed the barrio, attacking pachucos and tearing off their clothing on the streets of Los Angeles. The media version of the riots was that order was being restored and unruly criminal elements were being dealt with. In 1944, the Court of Appeals (People v Zamora 66 Cal.App.2d 166) overturned the convictions, finding insufficient evidence of the defendants’ guilt, and also pointing to the denial of the defendants’ right to counsel and the bias of trial court judge.
That’s not the end of the story line, as Henry and company try to re-integrate themselves back into their families and the barrio they’d left behind. Would Henry turn to a life of crime? Would the police even allow him to have a “normal” life? Could he pick up where he left off in his relationship Della, the love of his life?
His co-conspirator Smiley Torres decides that he has no future in Los Angeles, telling Henry shortly after the unfairly accused men are released from prison:
“Let’s face it, Hank. There’s no life for us in this city, I’m taking my family and I’m moving to Arizona.”
That brought the house down.
Lakin Valdez (as Henry Reyna) and Raul Cardona (as El Pachuco) deliver standout performances in an ensemble that features many talented actors and actresses.
Playwright Luis Valdez, considered the father of modern Chicano theater and a who often dramatized the Latino’s struggle against oppression in the United States, formed El Teatro Campesino, a farm worker’s theater troupe in 1965.
The show is both entertaining and serious as a heart attack. Its musical and dance elements balance off the angst of its characters. Go see it. You won’t be sorry.