On this page you'll find short production histories compiled on four major productions of Zoot Suit: The original Mark Taper Forum production in 1978, the Broadway production in 1979, the Film which was released in 1981 and finally, the contemporary revival which is currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum.
The productions are listed in chronological order, and contain a cast list, one to two published reviews and an analysis of the production's critical reception.
Mark Taper Forum, 1978
What: Zoot Suit
Where: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, April 1978
EDWARD JAMES OLMOS = El Pachuco
DANIEL VALDEZ = Henry Reyna
ABEL FRANCO = Enrique Reyna
LUPE ONTIVEROS = Dolores Reyna
EVELINA FERNANDEZ = Lupe Reyna
TONY PLANA = Rudy Reyna
CHARLES AIDMAN = George Sherer
KAREN HENSEL = Alice Bloomfield
ROSE PORTILLO = Della Barrios
ENRIQUE CASTILLO = Smiley Torres
MIKE GOMEZ = Joey Castro
PAUL MACE = Tommy Roberts
ANGELA MOYA = Elena Torres
RACHEL LEVARIO = Bertah Villareal
ROBERTA DELGADO ESPARZA = Hoba
GREG ROSATTI = Swabbie
SHERYL COOPER = Manchuka
MIGUEL DELGADO = Rafas
TOM DEMENKOFF =Ragman
RONALD LINARES = Hobo
VIKIE SHECKTER = Guera
ROSE ARAGON = Dora
VINCENT DUKE MILANA = Lt. Edwards
FRANK McCARTHY = Sgt. Smith
ARTHUR HAMMER = Reporter
RONALD LINARES = Cub Reporter
TOM DEMENKOFF = Newsboy
VINCENT DUKE MILANA = Judge F.W. Charles
FRANK McCARTHY = Bailiff
VINCENT DUKE MILANA = Guard
FRANK McCARTHY = Sailor
GREG ROSATTI = Sailor
TOM DEMENKOFF = Sailor
RONALD LINARES = Marine
Taper Forum Presents, “Zoot Suit” New York Times, 1978
SOME plays are born whole; others go through a public gestation. Along with its finished major productions, the Mark Taper Forum dedicates a great deal of its efforts to putting on works that are still taking shape. “Zoot Suit,” the most recent production in the Taper's development series, is an interesting example. It is scaffolded with a good deal of awkward and unformed matter, out individual shapes that are both specific and moving have begun to emerge
The Taper has a tradition of political and social involvement, and “Zoot Suit” deals with the struggling consciousness of an important subculture, the Chicano or Mexican‐American population of Southern California. I use the word “important” advisedly, but “unknown” would also be appropriate. Unknown in the East, of course, but to a considera‐ble degree unknown in Los Angeles itself. The Chicano culture is peripheral to this city's image and self‐image, and yet by now Chicanos are the largest single group in the city's schools.
“Zoot Suit” is written and directed by Luis Valdez, whose own Teatro Campesino has been a focus of Mexican American cultural expression and has won recognition both in this country and abroad. Mr. Valdez's style, mingling activism with entertainment, has been described as a mixture of Cantinflas, the popular Mexican comic, and Brecht. Both elements can be seen in “Zoot Suit,” with its loose form, its music and dancing, its didacticism and its comical and observant irony.
Set at the time of World War II, it uses the “pachucos", — members of the Chicano street gangs — as its central image. The characters wear the zoot suits of the period, with their snap brimmed hats, baggy pants, long coats and dangling chains. The play sees their grotesque and exaggerated style as a protest and a struggling assertion that could only flnd expression in clothes.
Thus, the stripping of one of the characters down to his jockey shorts by a group of white sailors is both agonizingly theatrical and a statement of the play's theme of oppression. The theme is overstated and the portraits of whites are mere posters — though sbmetimes striking ones. But the play's point is not to depict the Anglo world in itself but as it felt, in pain and bewilderment, by the Chicanos. By and large, it does this in a measured and touching fashion.
A real incident, adapted and transformed, provides the play's action. In 1943, after a fight in which one boy was killed, 22 members of a pachuco gang were tried and convicted. The Sleepy Lagoon case — named after the area where the fight took place — became a cause célèbre. A defense committee was formed, and an appeal was launched alleging judicial misconduct and prejudice. The appeal was eventually sustained and the youths were freed. “Zoot Suit” reduces the scale and sharpens the focus. Its characters include the gang leader, Henry Reyna, his family, three of his followers, their girls, the lawyer and a woman activist who fights their case, and an assortment of prejudiced or brutal local authorities.
There is a series of brief, contrasted scenes. They are presented by El Pachuco, a ghostly, detached and ironic presence. He first appears as an enormous knife blade slicing through a blown‐up newspaper with headlines shrieking about the Sleepy Lagoon ,case. He steps through the hole he has just made, a mocking exaggeration. His knife is almost as big as he is, and his extraordinary black costume is the Platonic archetype of zoot suits.
He talks a mixture of Spanish, English and the peculiar pachuco jargon; and a great deal of the play is in this mixture of languages. It is effective if sometimes hard to follow.
There are other sardonic narrators presenting the action as it proceeds. Arthur Hammer is a caricature of a’ sensationalist newspaper reporter; the portrait is outrageously simplistic but very funny. In a wry and painful scene, lie introduces the gang members and their girls as they are jitterbugging. He himself bobs and dances about dreamily, half inside the action and half in a ferocious detachment.
The gang members and their girls are not much characterized, though they move with style and grace. The character of Alice Springfield, the woman activist who befriends the jailed youths, does not really come across either. The play is still too long, repetitious and windy; and some of its devices — the lawyer's amiable struggle with Spanish — are juvenile.
But the character of Henry Reyna, beautifully played by Daniel Valdez, is most vivid. Short, awkward, fierce and affectionate, he is caught up in. the simplifications of his friends and his enemies, and butts at them like a small bull. The father, played with sweet, gravity by Abel Franco, has some of the play's best lines. A fiercely nationalist friend, alluding to Mexico's former hold on California, complains that “the gringo has stolen half the national territory.” Yes, Mr. Franco rejoins with judicious sarcasm, “and the half with all the paved too.”
Vincent Duke Milana plays an assortment of characters — the narrowminded judge, a sadistic detective, a prison guard — with a genteel virulence. Noah Keen is appealing as the idealistic lawyer, even if the part is written in corn syrup.
At this point, in this stage of its development, “Zoot Suit” has too many easy answers. It makes too demagogic an appeal to the emotions of an audience that is assumed to be Chicano and to remember, rather than to one that is more universal and needs to learn. But it has life, vitality and a vision; it only needs self‐denial and there is no reason why it cannot acquire that as it moves to a more definitive form.
-Richard Eder, New York Times
The original production of Zoot Suit ran at the Mark Taper Forum, put on by Center Theater Group in Los Angeles in 1978, having been written by Luis Valdez in 1973. Though mainstream publication reviews do not speak exceptionally well to the production’s success, we do know that the production’s original run sold out in two days, as well as its extension selling out just as quickly. The production was sensational and a landmark as the first ever professionally produced Chicano play. By Chicano play, I mean to express a play that specifically deals with the persecution and struggles of the Chicano subculture/identity, not simply a play written by a Chicano artist. The first professionally produced play written by a Chicano artist ran on broadway in 1974. Being the first play of its kind, to give a voice to the struggles of an oppressed minority, Zoot Suit was met with standing ovations and was on the receiving end of one of the largest influxes of Chicano theatergoers in LA history. Since its original production Zoot Suit has become something of a gold standard for education in agit prop theater, consistently making appearances in educational institutions as well as being cited has having influenced the work of emerging artists.
What: Zoot Suit (Broadway Production)
Where: Winter Garden Theater, 1634 Broadway New York City, April 1979
Charles Aidman = George Shearer
Helena Andreyko = Blondie
Raymond Barry = Sergeant Smith/Bailiff/Sailor
Darlene Bryan = Little Blue
Julie Carmen = Elena Torres
Miguel Delgado = Rafas
Roberta Delgado Esparaza = Lupe Reyna
Abel Franco = Enrique Reyan
Mike Gomez = Joey Castro
Arthur Hammer = The Press
Karen Hensel = Alice Bloomfield
Gela Jacobson = Guera
Richard Jay-Alexander = Marine/Hobo
Paul Mace = Tommy Roberts
Michele Maise = Hoba
Luis Manuel = Cholo
Lee Mathis = Sailor/Ragman/Newsboy
Vincent Duke Malana= Lieutenant Edwards/Jusge F.W. Charles/Guard
Kim Miyori = Manchuka
Angela Moya = Bertha Villareal
Edward James Olmos = El Pachuco
Lupe Ontiveros = Dolores Reyna
Tony Plana = Rudy Reyna
Rose Portillo = Della Barrios
Geno Silva = Smiley Torres
Dennis Stewart = Swabbie/Sailor/Cub Reporter
Daniel Valdez = Henry Reyna
Lewis Whitlock = Zoot Suiter
Theater: Zoot Suit; Chicano Music- Drama New York Times, 1979
“ZOOT SUIT,” like the garment that serves as its symbol, is a great deal of loose material draped over a spindly form.
Its attempt to construct a theatrical political pageant about the situation of the Chicano, or Mexican‐American, populace in Los Angeles is overblown and undernourished. It is a bewildering mixture of styles — realism, stylization, agitprop and plain showbiz gaudiness — that clash and undermine one another.
“Zoot Suit,” which had its formal opening last night at the Winter Garden after two press openings — I saw the performance on Saturday — was written and directed by Luis Valdez, creator of the Teatro Campeslno in California. It was put on last spring in an ex. penmental version at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, substantially revised fora fall production later in the year and polished and adjusted further for its New York premiere.
The early version, which I saw last April, was interesting and affecting though very uneven. The revisions, which are in the direction of theatricality and away from the elements of naturalism that contributed to both the play's character and its awkwardness, have had the effect of making it windier, more grandiloquent and less alive.
“Zoot Suit” is a free adaptation of real events that took place in Los Angeles during World War II. It was a time when public and official prejudice against the Chicano community was exacerbated by the activities of Pachuco youth gangs with their extravagant zoot suits and ducktail haircuts.
One such band, the 38th Street Gang, was arrested and convicted in a mass trial of murder during a gang fight. The conduct of the trial, both in court and in the press, was so one‐sided that the conviction was later overturned. The long defense effort was sustained by a committee of liberals and leftists, supported by a number of prominent figures from Hollywood and elsewhere.
Mr. Valdez uses the zoot suits and the gangs as images of a minority group whose younger generation was unwilling to accept second‐class status and engaged in an extravagant form of protest. The zoot suit was a way of asserting dignity; one of the most graphically moving scenes in the play is the humiliation of a Pachuco by a gang of sailors. He loses his dignity along wien his clothes.
The play centers on Henry Reyna, leader of the 38th Street Gang. It uses flashbacks to show the gang's activities, has a series of scenes showing the trial, the time in prison, the relationships of the youths and their Anglo defenders, and Ȅ very sketchily — the relationships of Henry and his contemporaries with their families.
The narrative and flashback scenes alternate with dance sequences in which the angular gyrations of the young Chicanos serve as a kind of choreographed protest. Newspapers are an insistent motif, reflecting the play's denunciation of the press role in whipping up anti‐Hispanic sentiments. Stacked‐up newspapers serve as furniture, newspapers on a clothesline are the family laundry, and in the fine opening scene, a blown‐up newspaper, hanging as a curtain, is pierced by an enormous knife blade. It rips a hole through which a flamboyant zootsuited figures steps.
He is El Pachuco, and he is a mythical figure who acts as one of Henry Reyna's voices, and provides a sardonic commentary on the events. El Pachuco, played with comic ferocity by Edward James Olmos, managed to dominate the stage at the Mark Taper Theater. At the Winter Garden, his presence is less effective and eventually it becomes a stage mannerism.
Other devices, such as an omnipresent reporter, nicely played by Arthur Hammer, which worked in the earlier version, seem merely affected here.
The role of Henry Reyna”s father, who provided a witty, ironic sense of Chicano life in an indifferent society, has been cut; and with it has gone some of the play's life.
Henry Reyna himself is played by Daniel Valdez with appealing passion, softened by reflectiveness. The character's symbolism eventually eclipses his reality, however. A whole series of scenes with Alice Bloomfield, the defense committee organizer, are shallow and mechanical. The incipient love relationship between Henry and Alice, played by Karen Hensel, and his conflicting love for his old girlfriend, are badly and heavily written.
There are some good scenes in which George Shearer, as Henry's lawyer, overcomes the Chicanos’ suspicion of him. The trial makes a comical, though only partly convincing travesty; and Vincent Duke Milana is a fine, obtuse judge.
The political arguments of “Zoot Suit” are presented in stilted and paper‐thin terms; and the rhythm of changes, in which the characters are dancing at one moment, fighting or making love at another, and speechifying a moment later, is jarring and unsatisfactory.
“Zoot Suit” aspires to be story and symbol, universal message and popular entertainment all at once; but its creators have failed to join all these things together.
-Richard Eder, New York Times
Stage View New York Times, 1979
“Zoot Suit,” which has been brought from a successful run in Los Angeles to the Winter Garden, has its heart in the right place and its foot firmly lodged in its mouth. No question about its intentions. They're virtuous through and through. The collage of newspaper headlines, stop‐motion street battles, snatches of verse and fragments of courtroom melodrama is loosely held together.. by remembered, and notorious, event of the 1940's. Seventeen young Mexican Americans, here reduced to a manageable four or five, were jailed, put through a transparently rigged trial and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of member of a rival gang — though no witnesses were ever produced to say who might have done what. In effect, they were condemned because of their ethnic origins and because of the clothes they wore: The oversized reet‐pleat trousers that billowed in the winds as they walked, the glistening chains that looped to their ankles, the flat‐brimmed hats they flaunted like a declaration of independence. In due time a Citizens Committee was formed to call public attention the flagrant injustice done, and, on appeal, the victims were freed.
But playwright Luis Valdez doesn't mean to confine . himself to a documentary rehash of the legal proceedings, with the judge's absurd order that each defendant rise for identification every time his name is mentioned literally turning the group into so many pop‐up ducks in a shooting gallery. The formal testimony is treated cursorily. Neither does the author wish to put together a celebration, with some singing and dancing, of the “happy” ending, though the fact that there are a few sound‐tracked melodies and bursts of jitterbugging choreographed by Patricia Birch does tend to suggest to audiences that a musical lies in wait. The triumphant moment when the youngsters are freed brushed aside as of minor importance, the music is no more than occasional background, the sailors and girls who sometimes leap into Lindy‐hop animation are essentially transi- tional devices meant to be soon, and roughly, interrupted by police or enemies from the barrio. A “happy” ending explicitly waived: Discrimination will crop up again, pentup anger will be its answer, any and every sort of ending possible for normally vigorous, well‐intentioned but dis trustful boys or girls whose skins happen to be dark enough to make them instantly visible and instantly vulnerable. We are given samples of a half dozen alternate endings, some horrendous, some more hopeful.
What playwright Valdez is after isn't the outrage of frame‐up or the ecstasy of its outcome, but the complexity that dogs all who are embroiled in it, Chicanos and Anglos alike. A bold duality is established at the outset. The stage, almost scenery‐less throughout, is dominated by a huge blowup of an inflammatory newspaper's front page. Suddenly the page is pierced from behind by a menacingly large knifeblade, and through the slit slithers performer Edward James Olmos, sinuously zoot‐suited, his pencil‐thin mustache curled in a perpetual leer. He is, among other things, the alter ego of the evening's hero and central martyr, played by the ruggedly handome and forcefully resonant Daniel Valdez (brother of the author).
Mr. Valdez plans to enter the Navy next day. Mr. Olmos, draping himself in that familiar backward tilt that suggests he is suspended by a wire from the navel, has a sneer ready for that: “You patriotic, huh?” As Mr. Valdez is’ caught up in a fight that is none of his doing, as he is brutalized by police and made into a thug by reporters, as he thrashes his way through the torments of solitary confinement, his secret companion is always at hand, replacing common sense with cynicism, hope with further hate.
A white liberal reporter, Karen Hensel, comes to help. As she speaks of the rescue committee that is being formed, Mr. Valdez slowly circles her, admiringly. “This one's for you,” cackles his other self, overriding gratitude with a hint of lust. When the girl promises the prisoner that “We're going to beat this rap,” Mr. Olmos wriggles his fingers downward in a great gesture of contempt, turning the promise into mockery as he rhythmically repeats it. When a white lawyer, deeply weary but endlessly dogged in Charles Aidman's intelligent performance, begs Mr. Valdez to have faith in the ultimate rectitude of the judicial system, Mr. Olmos counsels doubt and rebellion. He is the boy's “cool” side, his knowing side, his disbelieving side. No sweat. And no hope.
Strictly speaking, the two‐faced image doesn't really work well, even when Mr. Olmos is snakily amusing us. The two don't seem to inhabit the same psyche, don't ‐seem drawn from the same matrix; though we know that the boy is being prompted by old disenchantments, his flurries of rage often seem abrupt and arbitrary. Even so, the author trying to show us something, not only in his principal character but in the young man's family, his Chicano friends, his would‐be saviors. All live with triggers inside them, triggers cocked by ancient prejudices, half‐forgotten habits, ordinary failures of human understanding. His policemen, some of his reporters, and the trial judge are openly, rather irritatingly caricatured. These apart, Mr. Valdez is trying to be fair, to place most of his figures in the society that has bred them, a society of impulse, inhibition, mixed passions that must be controlled. He wants us to share the feel of family life inside the barrio, he wants us to understand how gangs are formed and why they fulfill a need, he wants us to see the hidden flaws, the contrarieties, in the “the decent” Anglos who keep struggling toward justice. That's a big web to be spun; its intentions could not be more honorable.
What shatters the web, and robs the event of its impact, is the author's surprisingly uncritical ear. He is utterly unable to resist a cliché, possibly even to recognize arse. No matter how ready we are to respond to the cry of the narrative to the glimpses of Chicano life — Abel Franco is particularly effective as a father permitting his sons to kiss his hand upon leaving — we are everlastingly brought up short, al-
‘Zoot Suit’ Loses Its Way In Rhetoric most slapped in the face, by the stale phrasings that are meant to convey emotion. Perhaps it's all right for a policeman to bark “We're not going to mollycoddle these kids any longer, you can't change the spots on a leopard” ; the author doesn't need his policemen to add dimension. But as we move .onto‐the girl reporter, and to the growing relationship between her and the young man she is bent on saving, we expect something better than a pontifical “We are all in jail, some of us just don't know it.” Certainly we expect something a good deal better than “No matter what happens at the trial, remember, I believe in you!” Indeed, after a time a listener can more or less count on the stock line that's coming next. After sentence has been passed: “Our fight has just begun!” As alter ego visits Mr. Valdez in solitary: “Haven't you learned yet, learned not to expect justice when it isn't there?” After Mr. Valdez has thought things over: “You were wrong, there is something to hope for, I know we're going to win!” After the accused are freed: “Do you realize this is the biggest victory Mexican‐Americans have ever won in this country?”
This willingness to use the easiest and most familiar constructions that come to mind leads to two things. It leads to what I think of as Announcement Acting, acting in which key lines are read with feet slightly, apart, body faced front, chin up, eyes glistening. Virtually everyone suffers from and only David Valdez can persuade you that, hoary as the words may be, there's heat behind them.
And it leads to the collapse of emotion. Though we are aware, for instance, that Mr. Valdez is developing some degree of romantic interest in his Anglo mentor, Miss Hensel, no actual warmth stirs; it is short‐circuited by the bloodless rhetoric. When, near the end of the evening, Mr. Valdez stands torn between Miss Hensel (staring upward into the lights at stage left) and his earlier Chicano love (staring upward into the lights at stage right), not even he can force us to believe that there is a contest going on. We've never really been caught up in his feeling for either:
All that is left for us to cling to is a smattering of sometimes interesting detail. Mr. Franco brusquely and unemotionally ordering his family to “Come along” after the staggering verdict. Mr. Valdez taking a deep enough breath enable him to swallow years of resentment before giving white lawyer the right to represent him. Miss Hensel reciting a letter she has written to Mr. Valdez in prison and letting her voice come apart at the precise moment the letter ripped into shreds. Occasional wedge‐shaped thrusts of rival gangs arranged by Patricia Birch so that they will cut off into sharp freezes that make the stage seem to gasp for breath. But these are only intermittent comforts. The “construct of fact and fantasy” we are invited to follow at the beginning of the evening finds a little something of each, but loses its tongue; losing its tongue, it loses its way
-Alfonso A. Navarez, New York Times
Zoot Suit remains one of only two plays written and directed Chicano artists by a to ever be produced on broadway, the first being Short Eyes by Miguel Pinero, which premiered on Broadway in 1974. Zoot Suit was vaulted to its broadway run from a successful run at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles a year earlier. New York audiences were less receptive to the production, often criticizing what they saw as an eclectic mix of aesthetic choices draped over a “skeletal” frame. The play ran for four weeks, giving forty-one performances over the course of that run. Overall, audiences and critics gave the production credit for having it’s heart in the right place, but employing too many clashing devices to convey its political message to be truly effective. Some of these contemporary reviews can be seen as quite harsh, suggesting that the production managed to get under people’s skin even as they were disinclined to it. In fact, many reviews are unabashedly hostile and defensive, suggesting that the production struck the exact chord in opposition to the American Hegemony that it was supposed to and the press simply did not appreciate being criticized. The production is also criticized for it’s high degrees of performativity, and one reviewer who had the chance to see multiple revisions, Richard Eder, specifically condemns the play’s journey away from naturalism, suggesting that the production's critical reception was undermined by not matching the palate of the New york theater scene at the time.
What: Zoot Suit (Film)
Where: Filmed in Prescott, Arizona
Daniel Valdez = Henry Reyna
Edward James Olmos = El Pachuco
Charles Aidman = George Shearer
Tyne Daily = Alice Bloomfield
John Anderson = Judge F.W. Charles
Abel Franco = Enrique
Mike Gomez = Joey/Jose Torres
Alma Martinez = Lupe
Francis X. McCarthy = Press
Lupe Ontiveros = Dolores
Ed Peck =Lt. Edwards
Robert Phaelen = District Attorney
Tony Plana = Rudy
Rose Portillo = Della
Marco Rodriguez = Smiley Torres
The New York Times, 1982 Movie Review
'ZOOT SUIT,'' which opens today at the Criterion 2 and other theaters, is a holy mess of a movie, full of earnest, serious intentions and virtually no achievements. Its source material, like that of the 1979 Brodway and Los Angeles stage productions on which it is based, is the 1942 Los Angeles trial of a group of young Mexican-Americans, or Chicanos, for the murder of a rival gang member.
The trial, before a court so outrageously biased that the conviction was subsequently overturned, summed up the bigotry directed against the Mexican-American community at a time when the rest of America was off making the world safe for democracy. The film is awash in irony, but it's a lot of hollandaise sauce on a very small piece of broccoli.
''Zoot Suit'' was directed by Luis Valdez, who also conceived and directed the original stage production at the Aquarius Theater in Los Angeles, and it is an amalgam of various theatrical styles, none of which works very well on the screen.
At its center is the story of Henry Reynal (Daniel Valdez), an idealized, none-too-young-looking Chicano youth. Henry is the leader of the gang being railroaded to San Quentin, largely, according to the movie, because of the inflammatory newspaper stories ordered by the press lord at San Simeon. Hovering around poor Henry and acting, more or less, as the film's master of ceremonies, is Henry's demonic, zoot-suited alter ego, el Pachuco (Edward James Olmos), who represents - I think - all of the fury inside Henry as well as the vestiges of an outdated machismo.
Because the story is so simple that it probably wouldn't take more than 30 minutes if told straightforwardly from beginning to end, the movie, like the stage production, is fancied up with flashbacks, flashes forward, musical numbers and theatrical tableaux of the sort that Hal Prince does far better in ''Evita,'' and which are risky no matter who does them.
The movie, photographed entirely on the stage, in the aisles and just outside the Aquarius, opens with shots of people arriving at the theater to see the show and then, from time to time in the course of the presentation, cuts to more shots of the audience that is supposedly watching the performance of ''Zoot Suit'' that we are seeing. Just so we get the point of this fractured reality, el Pachuco cautions us that the story ''only makes sense if you grasp our stylization.'' We do, we do, but that's not enough.
''Zoot Suit'' isn't satisfactory either as a filmed recording of a stage show or as a movie. It's a bunch of failed theories about, among other things, (1) how to capture on film the immediacy and excitement of a live performance and (2) how to make an extravagant movie, one with energetic, jitterbugging musical interludes, that doesn't cost an arm and a leg.
This stylization, which is just sophisticated enough to look sophomoric, can never disguise or make transcendental the truisms of a script that, I suspect, might be quite exciting as street-theater but which is simply attitudinal on the big screen.
The cameras aren't kind to any of the actors, especially Mr. Olmos, whose performance as el Pachuco was clearly designed to be seen at some distance, up on a stage. He is undone by close-ups that show us the landscape of his face and that isolate his sinuous body movements, better seen in relation to what's happening on the rest of the stage.
The only person who comes across with force is Tyne Daly, who plays Alice Bloomfield, the dedicated young Communist lawyer who fights for the release of the Chicano gang members and almost falls in love with Henry. She is flesh and blood. The others are marionettes.
-Vincent Canby, New York Times
Letterboxd, 2012 Movie Review
In Los Angeles in the 1940s, the Sleepy Lagoon murder case and the subsequent wrongful imprisonment of a number of Hispanic Americans galvanized the emerging “Chicano” community resulting in an anarchic outcry known as the “zoot suit riots”. It was a seminal, almost defining event in Chicano life, and it is appropriate that Luis Valdez’ play and film based on the incident, Zoot Suit, be considered a vital demonstration of Hispanic-American empowerment through cultural celebration. The play itself was indeed the first play by a Chicano playwright to be produced on Broadway. That success and the generally positive reaction that greeted Valdez’ screen version of his own theatrical work cemented Valdez as perhaps the most important defining figure in a still emerging Chicano cultural movement in theatre and film. Valdez’ involvement in this sub- culture runs through its modern history, starting in the 1960s with his involvement in the much-celebrated El Teatro Campesino which toured not only the USA but Europe as well. Valdez’ body of theatrical works however has yet to receive what many consider their due attention. Indeed, he remains perhaps best known for two films, Zoot Suit and the Ritchie Valens biopic, La Bamba, which was a popular hit and proved another cultural rallying cry.
Zoot Suit is based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder case of 1942. It is set in a time when Chicano culture was beginning to find its own forms of expression, as symbolized in the rebellious fashion of the so-called zoot suit. A young Hispanic man (Daniel Valdez) and his gang are out celebrating when they are arrested for the murder of a man. Valdez, now in prison awaiting trial, remembers his youth and the events that led up to his arrest. Through it all, his alter ego / conscience / idealized self, personified in the form of Edward James Olmos (in the role that virtually launched his career) talks to him and maintains his sense of pride and ethno-cultural identity. A Jewish activist (Tyne Daly) and a lawyer (Charles Aidman) work diligently on the case, believing that in the long run, justice will prevail. Soon, Valdez starts to bond more with Daly and in the process set aside the stubborn Latin pride represented by Olmos. However when the case gets to trial, such aspirations are slowly eroded as it seems clear that the judge is prejudiced against the accused group and that they are intended to be scapegoats, to prove a higher cultural lesson. When the eventual guilty decision is handed down, the race riots begin, with the two activists believing that the case will be reversed on appeal.
The film of Zoot Suit recreates the stage play with additional cinematic tricks, although Valdez is always careful to maintain an air of stylized theatricality, and the film rarely moves from a stage feel. It is primarily about the origins of Chicano cultural identity and what seemed like an official attempt by the powers-that-be to repress it. Fear of cultural otherness thus runs through this movie. The zoot-suit itself is an integral statement, an expression of a new identity of Hispanic America, the Chicano (and embracing rather than flinching from the connotations of that abused term). Likewise, a Chicano culture is in formation – of social, moral and artistic codes – although suffering from the scourge of youth gangs, which are used as an excuse for the authorities to practice prejudicial treatment of the emerging minority subculture. Ironically during the war, much of the press considers this emergent minority to be an enemy threat from within (an aspect which Valdez mentions forcefully) and Valdez ably depicts an America intent on the repression of minority subcultures, for fear of ethnicity and multiculturalism (even though this may be at odds with the immigrant spirit that founded the nation). It is as though the strength of Chicano identity and cultural formation was resented and punished by American authority at this time in history. As socio-cultural statement thus, Zoot Suit is invaluable.
Yet there is more to the film than the desire for cultural identity as it explores this dilemma on a personal, private level in the Daniel Valdez character’s own sense of himself as Chicano. Indeed, much of the film’s success is in the delicate psychological balance between Valdez and Olmos. Olmos represents Valdez’s ideal Chicano self, the cynical, super cool, proud gangster. Yet he also represents the almost self-defeating aspect of Chicano machismo pride. As respected an outlook as he embodies, the time of such fiercely proud cultural identity is waning and Valdez is faced with a more realistic prospect – that of cultural integration, how to maintain cultural pride and identity within a greater cultural context. The idealized Chicano hood arguably thus represents an important first phase in the cultural development of a subculture and the key to Valdez’s growth as a character is his realization of the potential limits of the surrender to what seems a monstrous, although not entirely out of place, Chicano pride. Thus, he gradually must set aside Olmos in order to co-operate with Daly, whose activism represents a potential alternative future to the prejudice that only validates the pride and isolation that could doom these young men. Stubbornness is perhaps the curse of the young Chicano, and the quality of cultural defiance most resented by the unseen American majority whose interests are supposedly represented by the press and justice system. The film thus both celebrates the idealized Chicano persona at this time in history and infers the necessity to transcend it. Cultural validation seems to be the dominant agenda here, but it is not uncritical.
-Robert Cettl, Letterboxd
The Zoot Suit film consisted of many of the same cast members of the original Mark Taper production and the Broadway production, including but not limited to: Daniel Valdez as Henry Reyna and Edward James Olmos as El Pachuco. At the time of it’s release Zoot Suit was not received well by critics, who criticized it’s seemingly overstyalized production aesthetic and mish mash of theatrical and film conventions. However, it did fare well in terms of popularity, as it was nominated for a Golden Globe in 1982. Suffice to say that the brechtian translation of filming the film on a revolving set in a movie theater did not go over well. The acting of Daniel Valdez and other stage veterans was criticized as hollow, while film veteran Tyne Daly was praised for her performance. The film has aged better and currently maintains a 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It would seem most likely that the film industry in the 1980’s was not quite prepared to entertain the existence of a film/stage hybrid, while audiences thirty years later are far more receptive. Additionally, many of the professional reviews regarding this film are written by critics who clearly failed to grasp the “Pachuco stylizations” of the work (even though some claimed they did). More contemporary reviews of the film are more forgiving of the theatrical conventions and highly stylized performances of the film, as well as more flexible in their understanding of the semiotic matrix employed by all of the characters, but most pointedly El Pachuco. A more empathic but still critical audience favors the film as it ages, as does the fact that philosophies such as critical race theory have gained a more solid foothold across educational institutions over the past three decades.
Mark Taper Forum Revival, 2017
What: Zoot Suit (Revival)
Where: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, March 2017
Brian Abraham = George Shearer
Demian Bichir = El Pachuco
Tiffany Dupont = Alice Bloomfield
Jeanine Mason = Della Barrios
Tom G. McMahon
Michael Naydoe Pinedo
Matias Ponce = Henry Reyna
Rose Portillo = Dolores Reyna
Daniel Valdez = Enrique Reyna
‘Zoot Suit’ at The Mark Taper Forum, 2017
It is not every day that a hat receives entrance applause at the theater. However, it is also not every day that Zoot Suit returns to Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum, the very theater that commissioned and hosted its world premiere in 1978. Written by Luis Valdez with music by Lalo Guerrero, it went on to become the first Chicano play on Broadway and inspired a film of the same name. Politically charged and still relevant to a shocking degree thanks to current events, this vibrant feast for the senses represents the very best of what Los Angeles theater has to offer.
Zoot Suit tells the true story of Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce) and the 38th Street Gang. One night in 1942, the gang gets into an altercation at a party near Sleepy Lagoon, which functioned as a “lovers lane” of sorts, and a man ends up murdered. In an unprecedented legal move, 22 members of the gang, including Henry, are charged for the same murder, a witch hunt directly tied to the Chicano identity of most of the gang members, many of whom flaunt their culture by wearing ostentatious zoot suits. They lose the trial and are all sentenced to life in prison, but thanks to the efforts of a hard-working lawyer, George (Brian Abraham), and a reporter turned activist, Alice (Tiffany Dupont), the gang is eventually released from jail after winning an appeal. The play’s final scenes focus on Henry coming to terms with the changes that have taken place in both his family and the world during his incarceration and choosing between his old flame, Della (Jeanine Mason), whom he proposed to prior to the murder, and Alice, with whom he developed a relationship while in jail.
All of the proceedings are overseen by an enigmatic character known as El Pachuco (Demian Bichir), an outrageously well-dressed man seen only by Henry and the audience who represents Henry’s alter-ego while also serving as a singing, dancing emcee. The production features elaborate musical numbers with fantastic dancing, choreographed to perfection by Maria Torres. The energy level on opening night, both on stage and in the audience, was through the roof, and every aspect of this monumental return seemed incredibly well thought out. The lighting (Pablo Santiago) and sound design (Philip G. Allen) were flawless and the ensemble of 25 multi-talented actors was more than up to the task of presenting this intricate piece.
An interesting aspect of this production is that a decent chunk of dialogue is in Spanish. As a non-Spanish speaker, I did not ultimately feel like I missed any plot-crucial information, but I did feel that I missed out on some of the jokes that a large portion of the audience was reacting to. But, this play was not written for me—in its 1978 debut it was the first professionally produced Chicano play, and as such, that is the audience it celebrates. What I found most surprising was how politically relevant Zoot Suit, which was written in the 1970s about the 1940s, still feels in 2017. In act one, George gives an impassioned speech as part of his closing arguments at the trial in which he singles out the dangers of totalitarianism and the targeting of people based on their ethnicity. It almost felt as if the air was sucked out of the theater for a brief moment before everyone started to applaud.
Center Theatre Group of course had no idea the events that would transpire over these past few months when they announced this production, but it feels remarkably timely. While the way the play is presented to the audience may not be exactly universal, many aspects of the characters’ specific experiences can be likened to the persecution of other minorities throughout history. The Holocaust is mentioned during the play, and Henry’s brother Rudy (Andres Ortiz) is attacked and stripped of his zoot suit during the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. It is impossible not to draw parallels to the recent attempted Muslim ban, which among others singled out those who wear burkas and hijabs.
The ending of Zoot Suit is a bit unconventional, in line with the dreamlike quality that encompasses the entire piece. While I could have done without an extended resolution of the somewhat half-baked love triangle at the very end, this play and specifically this production are achievements to be celebrated. You will laugh, you will think, and you will dance in your seat.
Zoot Suit runs at the Mark Taper Forum through March 26th. Tickets range from $20-$109 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org.
-Erin Conley, On Stage Blog
Zoot Suit at the Taper: An L.A. Revival, Perfectly Timed, Los Angeles Times 2017
“Zoot Suit,” the landmark 1978 play by Luis Valdez that put the struggles of Mexican Americans front and center, is back where it originated at the Mark Taper Forum in an exhilarating revival that couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
It may be hard for 21st century theatergoers racking up credit-card debt to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” to imagine the cultural impact of “Zoot Suit” when it first premiered nearly 40 years ago. But mainstream stages in those days weren’t exactly embracing Latino stories. “Zoot Suit” carved a path that Chicano theater artists such as Luis Alfaro and Culture Clash are more easily treading today.
The fight for artistic visibility continues, but what makes this revival of “Zoot Suit” especially urgent now is the way its story speaks so directly to the current political moment, when fundamental constitutional values are being tested and law enforcement and racial justice appear to be at loggerheads.
“Zoot Suit” centers on events that followed what the tabloids dubbed the “Sleepy Lagoon murder” of Aug. 2, 1942. Los Angeles police rounded up Mexican American youths in an overreaction to a crime that served demagogic ends. Suspected gang members, who were presumed to have taken part in a violent altercation that may have led to a young man’s death, were tried and convicted in a case that was exploited by politicians and sensationalized by the media.
The Zoot Suit riots of 1943, in which American servicemen and citizens attacked ethnic minorities dressed in a peacock manner that was considered unpatriotic during the war, could be linked to the fear and hostility that had been whipped up during the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial. The conviction was eventually overturned on appeal, a watershed legal victory for the Mexican American community that exposed the extent of bias in the criminal justice system.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the play you are about to see is a construct of fact and fantasy,” El Pachuco (Demian Bichir) announces at the start of “Zoot Suit.” Pachuco is the play’s master of ceremonies, a trickster figure who represents the various voices bearing down on the protagonist, Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce), a character based on one of the men thrown in jail for the Sleepy Lagoon murder.
Valdez, who directed an updated version of his script, creates a kaleidoscopic theatrical world around this documentary story to broaden the cosmology. The clarity of his moral voice, which resounds not only through the words of the characters but through the way the piece has been composed, is galvanizing.
When George (Brian Abraham), a lawyer for the defendants, says during his closing remarks at the trial, “I have tried my best to defend what is most precious in our American society — a society now at war against the forces of racial intolerance and totalitarian injustice,” the Taper audience responded as though the character were speaking at a rally today in Pershing Square.
As a play, “Zoot Suit” has weaknesses, the most noticeable being the handling of Henry’s dramatic through line. His character is largely defined by what happens to him; it’s only in the later stages of the play that we come to know more about the personal conflicts besetting him. The way the court saga is parceled out seems lumpy in certain sections, meager in others. And Pachuco’s theatrical role is clearer than his dramatic function. (He’s meant to be slippery, but at times he just seems murky.)
Valdez’s buoyant direction largely compensates for these deficiencies. The choreography by Maria Torres and the music direction by Daniel Valdez (who originated the role of Henry and now plays Henry’s father, Enrique) contribute to the communal liveliness of the production. Music and dance keep things kinetic even when the drama become sluggish.
A streak of madcap political satire runs through “Zoot Suit” that made me think of the Italian playwright Dario Fo, who knew as well as any writer the subversive power of a shared laugh. Luis Valdez is working in a long tradition of populist theater that awakens audiences through humor and builds solidarity through shtick.
There is reverence too. Like August Wilson’s great 10-play cycle chronicling African American life in the 20th century, “Zoot Suit” brings to the stage the rituals and daily routine of a marginalized community. Time spent with Henry’s family is as integral to Valdez’s vision as the court case itself.
What makes this revival of 'Zoot Suit' especially urgent now is the way its story speaks so directly to the current political moment.
Fashion is obviously of crucial importance here. The zoot suit is a mark of pride in the flair and flamboyance of cultural style that directly challenges the more banal mainstream. Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes offer variations on the long jackets and feather-spiked hats of these attention-grabbing ensembles.
The men strut on Christopher Acebo’s set, which in good Brechtian fashion keeps us mindful that the action is taking place on a stage. The scenic design makes artful use of incendiary newspaper headlines, sharpening our collective critical scrutiny of how the media gets locked into distorted narratives.
Press (Tom G. McMahon), the personification of yellow journalism, tries to persuade the jury that Los Angeles is “in the midst of the biggest, most terrifying crime wave in its history. A crime wave that threatens to engulf the very foundations of our civic well-being.” If these words sounds familiar, it’s because society is always looking for “bad hombres” to scapegoat.
Bichir (who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in “A Better Life”) makes a snake-like El Pachuco, tempting Henry into rash actions and filling his head with doubts. It’s a physical performance that could use a little more vocal heft, but unconscious figures are meant to skulk and Bichir does so with sinewy style.
Ponce portrays Henry as defensive and volatile, a guy who’s always ready to reach for his switchblade. The character’s circumstances don’t permit much variation, but when Henry is forced to choose between his girlfriend, Della (Jeanine Mason), and the progressive journalist who has been helping him on his case, Alice Bloomfield (Tiffany Dupont), Ponce reveals new facets of a man damaged by a life that has deprived him of possibilities.
The strong supporting cast adds to the spirit of camaraderie that makes this revival of “Zoot Suit” such a timely gift to Los Angeles theatergoers.
-Charles McNulty, LA Times
Well, this production has had its run extended three times, which tells you something about how well it’s doing. At the time of its revival Zoot Suit has long since carved out a place for itself in Western Theater Canon as the defining play of the theatrical and political movement. Charles McNulty describes this production as a “gift” to its audiences, and the vast majority of his peers would seem to agree with him. While some elements of the play are still criticized, namely the romantic complications between Della, Henry, and Alice, these criticisms are outweighed by the extolling of the production’s virtues. Additionally, the production has been heralded as well timed, perhaps to a degree of serendipity, as the commissioning theater had no idea just what the political landscape of our country would look like when they began the production process. However, the heart of the play which speaks to the oppression of a racial minority is, sadly, no more wanting for relevance than it was in 1978. Theatergoers tastes also seem to have shifted from the time of Zoot Suit’s broadway production, as now the styalization is widely accepted as “kinetic” or “lively” and attributed as an overall strength of the production.