Zoot Suit Review - Pride and Prejudice 2017

August 17, 1978 marked the debut of this powerful tale of Latinos in Los Angeles, prejudice, and hope. When asked about the play, playwright Luis Valdez remarked: “When the character of El Pachuco, memorably played by Edward James Olmos, swaggered onto the Taper stage, Chicano theatre became American theatre.” Based on true events, the tale brought the struggles of Hispanics in Los Angeles to vivid life.

Demian Bichir as El Pachuco - Photo by Craig Schwartz

In 1942, a murder in Sleepy Lagoon transfixed all of Los Angeles.  Hispanics – barred from many public venues – often strolled around and swam in Sleepy Lagoon, their own special “waterhole.“ Twenty-two Latin males, all “Zoot Suiters” and members of the 38 Street gang, were quickly arrested, convicted in a sham trial, and sent to prison for life. At the same time, racial riots broke out in Los Angeles highlighting the tension, anger, and violence inherent in relations between the Chicanos and the white majority in the 1940’s. Zoot suits became a mark of racial pride – but also became a red flag for discrimination and even violence.

Cast of Zoot Suit - Photo by Craig Schwartz

Almost 40 years later, the Mark Taper Theatre has resurrected ZOOT SUIT. Although the world has changed over the intervening years, in some ways things remain the same. The current political climate has given new fangs to the play. At different points in the performance, clapping and cheers erupted from the audience, suggesting a level of social consciousness which has been building over the past decades.

Richard Steinmetz, Demian Bichir, Matias Ponce, and Tom G. McMahon - Photo by Craig Schwartz

The story is simple but also complex. Henry Reyna (Matias Ponce) is the leader of the 38 Street gang, all of whom proudly wear their flamboyant zoot suits. But one night changes Henry’s life and the lives of his pals. The group is charged with the Sleepy Lagoon murder and sent to prison for life. His girlfriend Della Barrios (Jeanine Mason), who testifies for him, is summarily sent to a juvenile institution. Discrimination is readily apparent as the 22 are railroaded by the police and the judicial system. While he sits in a San Quentin prison cell enveloped in anger and rage, Henry’s family, friends, and activist supporters desperately work to free him and his fellow zoot suiters.  

Jeanine Mason and Matias Ponce - Photo by Craig Schwartz

During all these events in Los Angeles, a war just happens to be going on. While World War II gears up, the war in Los Angeles also gears up in riots and violence. Through all of this, the allegorical El Pachuco (Demian Bichir) – artfully attired in his zoot suit – swaggers across the stage, keeping the 2017 audience up to date and bringing both fantasy and hard reality into the story.

Rose Portillo and Daniel Valdez - Photo by Craig Schwartz

ZOOT SUIT is a story about Los Angeles history in the 1940’s – but it also resonates with 2017 audiences in a way which may not have been anticipated by author Luis Valdez. Perhaps everything changes – but sometimes also remains the same. ZOOT SUIT is a must-see on multiple levels. When the play ends, the discussion is just beginning.

Entire Cast of Zoot Suit - Photo by Craig Schwartz

ZOOT SUIT runs through March 26, 2017, with performances at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays, at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays. The Mark Taper Forum is located at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Tickets range from $25 to $109. For information and reservations, call 213-972-7231 or go online.    

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