Zoot Suit among several new theater productions opening this weekend
Out to recover dreams of childhood, our theater critic Philip Pearce was carried aloft by the new Pacific Repertory production of Peter Pan at Carmel’s Forest Theater. See his coverage on our Theater Reviews page.
In August, 1942, José Gallardo Díaz was found unconscious with a skull fracture next to a quarry-pit swimming hole near Maywood, a southeast Los Angeles suburb adjacent to today’s Long Beach Freeway. He died in hospital without regaining consciousness. LA police arrested more than 30 members of the Mexican-American 38th Street Gang, including its leader Henry Leyvas, on murder charges. The following winter, nine of the defendants were convicted and sent to prison. In the wake of the trial, several violent confrontations between Latinos, identified by their flamboyant zoot suits, and members of the US armed forces broke out. Those brawls came to be known as the Zoot Suit Riots. Police and politicians, along with the press, came down hard on the zoot-suiters and paid little or no attention to the instigating Anglo servicemen. (Photo by Sprague Talbott: Pachucos in LA, 1940.)
In 1978, Luis Valdez’ musical Zoot Suit opened to acclaim in LA, then on Broadway and, soon after, in the film that launched the national career of actor Edward James Olmos. For his fictionalized account of the so-called Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial and its consequences, Valdez reinvented Leyvas as Henry Reyna, added a Greek chorus commentary in the form of the zoot-suited El Pachuco, and drew on the talents of Daniel Valdez and Lalo Guerrero for music. The play uses several theatrical devices to engage the audience directly into the social and racial issues at hand. (Photo: David Zuberia as Henry Reyna and Michael Uribes as El Pachuco.)
The new Western Stage production of Zoot Suit is co-directed by WS veterans Lorenzo Aragon and Jon Selover. “The theme of the play is fear in society, fear over what others wear or look like,” says Aragon. “The Trayvon Martin killing just reinforces the universal relevance of Zoot Suit; that people still hurt and murder others for the same reasons.”
The energize this revival, and honor the playwright’s original intentions, Aragon convinced the producer to hire a live orchestra in place of a recorded track. Music director Don Dally conducts the eight-member band—some who play on Mexican indigenous instruments—plus the chorus, which also dances in the big production numbers. “Our El Pachuco has performed the play before but never with live music,” says Aragon, adding “All the musicians are loving it.” Other features of the production are the sets by Ted Dolas, costumes by Rhonda Kirkpatrick and makeup and hair by Donna Federico.
Zoot Suit opens Saturday on the Mainstage at Hartnell College. This weekend also sees the opening of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in the Jewel Theatre production at Center Stage in Santa Cruz, and Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love at Stardust Playhouse in Monterey. See our Calendar page for ticket and contact information.
Scott MacClelland, editor