Zoot Suit first appeared at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum back in 1978. It was a revelation. For the first time a mainstream Los Angeles stage was presenting a slice of local history that laid bare official L.A.’s casual discrimination against young men of Latino heritage. This largely true story of the World War II-era Sleepy Lagoon murder case, as written and directed by Luis Valdez of El Teatro Campesino, was strong stuff. But that hardly meant it was a grim evening of theatre. Valdez’s direction (encouraged by Center Theatre Group’s invaluable artistic director, Gordon Davidson) played up the color, the music, and the general exuberance of L.A.’s Mexican-American community. Audiences, whatever their own ethnic background, were mesmerized.
So successful was Zoot Suit that it moved east, for a 1979 Broadway run. There were only 41 performances, though star Edward James Olmos would be nominated for a featured-actor Tony. (The sense at the time was that Broadway audiences were not really ready for a plunge into the world of the Chicano. I’d love to see what Lin-Manuel Miranda could do with this material!) Eventually, in 1982, a film version would appear, with Olmos again as the play’s showiest figure, and established actors Charles Aidman and Tyne Daly taking on the roles of two sympathetic Anglos who fight the conviction of Henry Reyna (Daniel Valdez) for a murder he didn’t commit. Though this miscarriage of justice is the story’s center, Olmos’s character is what makes it unforgettable. He plays El Pachuco, a sort of fantasy tough-guy who mediates between Reyna and the audience, sardonically attacking Anglo culture and showing off the flamboyant up-yours spirit of the zoot-suiter. Reveling in a Spanglish vocabulary, he represents the anger of an underclass that uses defiant poses and fancy threads to differentiate itself from the white man’s world.
In celebration of the Center Theatre Group’s 50th anniversary (and in fond tribute to the late Gordon Davidson), the Mark Taper is now once again hosting Zoot Suit. This new production, headed by Mexican-born Oscar nominee Demián Bichir, is probably even more colorful and more musically oriented than the long-ago one I remember. On the night I attend, the packed house adored it, and the run is completely sold out. Happily, the responses from the audience to some of Spanish-language throwaway lines hinted that Latin Americans were (for a change) well represented in the Taper audience. I must admit that for me the play’s twists and turns were slightly less galvanizing than what I recall. I suspect this is because the injustice shown on the stage is more of a given now than it was back in 1978. Still, some of the rhetoric among the play’s police and judicial figures, with its basic assumption that most Latinos are rapists and murderers, seemed all too well connected with the language we hear on today’s nightly news. This is hardly a play whose themes seem outdated or irrelevant.
Zoot Suit put Edward James Olmos on the map. Since then, of course, he’s been a Hollywood stalwart, Oscar-nominated for his leading role in Stand and Deliver, and a featured player in such classics as Blade Runner. While the original Zoot Suit was being staged, I (as an L.A. Times theatre writer) was introduced to Olmos. He was friendly and warm, but the role of El Pachuco had such a hold on me that I instinctively shied away. I also take a moment to salute one of the original Zoot Suit players, my college-era colleague, Angela Moya, who went on to have a nice little acting career. Angela, where are you now?
A Postscript: Edward James Olmos’ Oscar-nominated role was that of super-teacher Jaime Escalante. I just discovered, on a letter that came in today’s mail, that the U.S. Post Office has issued a Jaime Escalante stamp.