Critic's Choice

'Zoot Suit' at the Taper: An L.A. revival, perfectly timed

“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.

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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.

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.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ 

‘Zoot Suit’

Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends March 26. 

Tickets: $25 to $99 (subject to change)

Information: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes, including intermission

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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