Jose Diaz, a young, Mexican national, attended a neighbor’s party on the outskirts of Los Angeles in August 1942. The 22-year-old had recently enlisted in the U.S. Army and thought this was a fitting way to celebrate his final weekend as a civilian. As Diaz’s inebriated legs carried him home, he was accosted, beaten, and stabbed, dying hours later. Racial animus resulted in the conviction of more than 20 Mexican-American defendants, while spurring riots that later engulfed the City of Angels.
The senseless murder, the ensuing injustice, and the urban conflagration sparked by white, U.S. servicemen inspired playwright and El Teatro Campesino (ETC) founder, Luis Valdez, when he was commissioned to write and produce, “Zoot Suit,” for the Los Angeles-based Center Theatre Group (CTG) in 1977.
The play debuted at the Mark Taper Forum the following summer, filling the 739-seat theater to capacity at every performance for the next 11 months.
Becoming the first Chicano play on Broadway, a run in New York City marked another sign of “Zoot Suit’s” success. In 1981, Universal Pictures released a film adaptation, making Valdez the first Mexican-American director of a major studio motion picture. The movie's box office revenue funded the purchase and renovation of a former potato-packing shed in San Juan Bautista. Dubbed the "house that Zoot Suit built," the building now serves as theater company's headquarters and playhouse.
Nearly 40 years after it was unveiled, “Zoot Suit” has returned to its storied origins.
On Tuesday, Jan. 31, “Zoot Suit” once again headlined the Mark Taper Forum, the result of a partnership between the CTG—a non-profit, community theater company that operates the Taper—and ETC in celebration of the former’s 50th anniversary. The play runs through Sunday, March 19.
Combining elements of both the past and present, the play’s 2017 rendition includes several new faces, and a handful of familiar ones, too.
Valdez has returned to the director’s chair, while is son, Kinan, is serving as associate director. And rounding out the creative team is longtime ETC member and fellow San Juan resident, Phil Esparza, who is the play’s executive producer.
In a telephone interview with BenitoLink, the younger Valdez explained that unlike previous, staged productions of “Zoot Suit” this performance incorporates the large ensemble cast and two musical numbers that appeared in the movie version.
Valdez added that meshing the artistic mediums was a conscious decision by his father, who acknowledges that “people’s perception of the play is shaped by the movie.”
“Zoot Suit” is a fictional account of the events that occurred in wartime L.A. between 1942 and 1944.
Luis Valdez fashioned the play’s main character, Henry Reyna, after the real-life Henry (Hank) Leyvas, one of 22 defendants charged with Diaz’s death and pegged by the prosecution as the ringleader of the 38th Street gang during the so-called Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial.
Another important character is El Pachuco—an archetype of the Mexican-American youth who lived in L.A.’s barrios and who accentuated their stylized, tailor-made suits with the use of slang words, like, “¡Órale!” (Alright!) and “simón” (yes).
The wartime press vilified pachucos, calling them unpatriotic because their clothing exceeded rationing quotas for cotton and blaming them for a rising crime wave. Not surprisingly, law enforcement used racial profiling in its investigation of Diaz's murder. In addition, a self-described prosecutor's judge presided over the trial, prohibiting defendants from sitting with their lawyers and allowing the court record to include inflammatory language that suggested one's Aztec ancestry made a person bloodthirsty.
Twelve defendants were sentenced to prison. In 1944, the verdict was repealed, but the damage had been done. Several members of the 38 Street gang, including Leyvas, returned to prison. He died inside an East L.A. bar in 1971 after suffering a massive heart attack.
Racist attitudes held by U.S. servicemen stationed in the L.A. area boiled over into the streets in 1943. Often accompanied by civilians, they roamed the city assaulting and disrobing pachucos while policemen looked on. The Zoot Suit Riots ended when military authorities halted soldiers, sailors, and Marines from entering the city.
Luis Valdez’s younger brother, Danny (Daniel), who starred as Henry Reyna during the play’s L.A. and New York City stints, as well as in the film adaptation, appears in the upcoming production. This time he portrays Enrique Reyna, Henry’s father.
In his telephone interview with BenitoLink, Danny explained that when he was approached by Luis a few months ago to play the elder Reyna he “couldn’t say no,” admitting that he found the idea “really intriguing and exciting.”
Danny also described his familiarity with “Zoot Suit” and its characters on a visceral level and stated that his participation in this year’s rendition is a full-circle moment.
“I know the play forward and backwards, and the [new] role is a mirror reflection of myself. Hank grew up and became a father,” said the Hollister resident and father of two, adult children.
As the composer of the play’s original score and the movie’s soundtrack, Danny has returned as music director, too.
Another of the original cast members joining Danny on stage this time around is Rose Portillo, who for years starred as Della Barrios, Henry’s love interest.
For the revived production, Portillo portrays Lupe Reyna, Enrique’s better-half.
Danny joked that during rehearsals for this year’s production he and Portillo had lots “constant flashbacks.”
Kinan Valdez explained that the cast also includes three, third-generation ETC members. They are Melinna Bobadilla, Stephani Candelaria, and San Juan resident, Andres Ortiz.
Ortiz, who starred as Tiburcio Vásquez in the Western Stage’s production of “Bandido!” last year, plays Henry’s little brother, Rudy.
Naive, immature, and lacking the the self-pride evident in Henry’s swagger, Rudy is his older sibling’s polar opposite. He’s a coward, too, allowing Henry to take the rap for Jose William’s death.
In the play’s second act, Rudy, who has returned from war, does an about face, apologizing to Henry and now ready to accept responsibility for his crime.
“Rudy has a nice arc,” Ortiz said, adding that the when “all characters change that’s the sign of a good play.”
Among the challenges Ortiz faced in preparing for his role were the lively dance numbers and the “pachuco lean,” a posture that involves a strong core and sturdy legs.
Despite the physical demands, Ortiz reveled in the eight-hour rehearsal days. And he’s overwhelmed by the talent that surrounds him, he said.
When the “Zoot Suit” debuted at the Taper in 1978, it struck a “raw nerve," said Luis Valdez in an interview with BenitoLink last August.
Apparently, L.A.’s collective memory had buried the events that gripped the city during its war years. “Zoot Suit” challenged Angelenos to reckon with their past.
At the same time, the play introduced thousands, who had never ventured downtown to watch a staged production, to professional theater, Valdez explained.
Danny Valdez recalled the play’s L.A. run as a significant moment for both the actors and theatergoers.
“It was an event to both experience and to be part of the play," he said.
And he emphasized that although nearly four decade have passed since El Pachuco sliced through a large newspaper with a switchblade and said to the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, the play you are about the see is a construct of fact and fantasy," “Zoot Suit's" return is timely.
“It’s more relevant now than ever, especially as we’re going through this Trump thing,” Danny said. And referring to his Mexican-American background, he added, “This is our Shakespeare, our theater, and our history.”
To purchase tickets for "Zoot Suit" visit the Center Theatre Group's website.
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