Zoot Suit, at Western Stage, Sep 7, 2013

Luis Valdez channels Bertolt Brecht

By Philip Pearce

A switchblade stabs through a huge blown-up front page of the Los Angeles Examiner headlining teen gang violence. A head pops through the slit in the paper, then the body of a man in balloon trousers with a key chain the size of a jump-rope swinging from one pocket. Languorously he combs his hair into a ducksass coif. From the slit in the newspaper, a hand begins to feed him the pointy black shoes, the sagging jacket and black fedora of a trendy 1940s Chicano zoot suiter. This iTWS-Zoot-Suit-3s El Pachuco, the disturbing central figure of Luis Valdez’ Zoot Suit, currently playing at the Western Stage at Hartnell College.

In something not unlike the harsh “Living Newspaper” stage presentations of the Great Depression, Valdez has written a searing political satire. It’s based on a 1942 trial that falsely convicted 17 young members of the 38th Street Gang in Los Angeles to life imprisonment for a murder they did not commit at a gang hangout called the Sleepy Lagoon. The opening spotlight on costume is significant. These accused young men were condemned as much for their anti-establishment zoot suits as for any evidence of homicidal intent. Focusing on gang leader Henry Reyna and three other defendants, one an Anglo, the script presents their false arrest, ruthless prosecution and wrongful conviction in a format where actors step abruptly out of character, breaking the stage-audience fourth wall to challenge us with public opinion sound bites based on news headlines, World War II battle statistics and Latino wartime pop music and dancing.

When I saw Zoot Suit some years ago at El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, I felt excited by the first act, but let down by the second. The story had reached the end of a detailed and bitterly unjust trial scene covering the conviction and sentencing of the gang members, and the promise by their defense lawyer George Shearer—played with spirited conviction at TWS by Alfred Seccombe—that they’d win on appeal. Act II opened with the clear expectation that we’d see Shearer’s promise fulfilled in a second trial scene. But it never happened. Only another passing newsflash affirmed that the accused boys had been exonerated. Valdez seemed to me back then to have promised an important climax that he never delivered. I felt cheated, and some sardonic words about “happy endings” from the zoot suited Pachuco didn’t help one bit.  

My second look at the show last week at TWS helps me see that the problem was not with Valdez’ play, but with the misdirected expectations I brought to it—expectations I suspect a lot of audiences, even regular theater-going ones, will share.

The truth is, Valdez is not concerned with neat dramatic climaxes or characters we are asked to sympathize or identify with. These actors and singers and dancers are Brechtian illustrations, sometimes funny, sometimes starkly unpleasant, of ideas Valdez wants to thrust at us. The people on stage lay down an ugly challenge to a complacently liberal California which harbored its own civil rights abuses even as it geared up to fight fascism overseas. Valdez cares a lot less how much we sympathize with or reject these stage figures than how we react to the viewpoints they represent. Actors involved in a scene are abruptly isolated in solitary glaring spotlights that emphasize not their humanity but their viewpoint on whatever is happening. The play is a shifting, often uneasy and inconclusive debate, a kind of dramatized all-singing, all-dancing op-ed page. My mistake at San Juan Bautista was expecting to leave the theater with some kind of satisfying answer to an ugly incident of racial prejudice. But all the while El Pachuco was telling me that real life doesn‘t supply a lot of conclusive answers or encouraging climaxes, even if stage life usually does.

As El Pachuco, Michael Uribes is, as he must be, riveting. He pervades everything that happens, sometimes lurking in shadow on the fringes of the story, sometimes strutting insolently into the spotlight, backed up from time to time by the sardonic voices of a Pachuca Trio played by Carmela Rebancos, Roxana Sanchez and Reina Cruz Vasquez. Their task is to judge, comment trenchantly on characters and events and decisions, undermine platitudes and easy solutions, push dark alternatives onto hero Henry, played with style and passion by David Zubiria.

Zoot Suit has vivid if inconclusive dramatic conflicts and vibrant music and dancing, but it’s not an easy option. I salute directors Jon Selover, Lorenzo Aragon and Don Dally, the cast and TWS for mounting this revival and for serving it up with such brio and conviction.

If you’re looking for a nice relaxing evening out, this may not be your show, but you‘ll be missing an important reminder of a landmark in California history and a powerful, troubling experience of theater with an important difference.

Zoot Suit plays weekends through Sep 28. Photo: Luna Ezekiel as Della Barrios and Michael Uribes as El Pachuco; The Western Stage.