‘Zoot Suit’ premieres in Mexico City


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As the play begins, the myth-like El Pachuco figure slices through a scrim curtain depicting sensational news headlines from 1940s Los Angeles, slowly dons the pieces of his black-and-red zoot suit and begins telling the story of the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial. This time, however, instead of coolly hissing, ‘Ladies and gentlemen...’ directly to the audience, the Pachuco character bows and begins, ‘Damas y caballeros ...

For the first time in Mexico and for the first time in Spanish, a full-scale production of ‘Zoot Suit,’ the landmark Chicano musical play by Luis Valdez, premieres Thursday night in Mexico City. The production is the most ambitious mounting of ‘Zoot Suit’ since the playwright and director took the show to Broadway’s Winter Garden Theater in 1981 -- almost 30 years ago.

For Mexican theater, ‘Zoot Suit’ is also an ambitious and somewhat risky undertaking. The show is an unusual co-production between the newly reformed National Theater Company and the theater at the UNAM, the national university, and deals with the history and culture of Mexican Americans. Valdez relocated to Mexico months ago to direct and cast the production with some of Mexico’s most distinguished stage actors and many up-and-coming performers. The script -- studied in high schools and universities across the southwestern United States -- was fully translated to Mexican Spanish.


‘Zoot Suit’ had its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1978 and became a box office smash. The play tells the story of Henry Reyna, the lead defendant in the kangaroo-court trial involving an unsolved homicide near a reservoir in southeast Los Angeles in 1942. The trial played out as an assault on the predominantly Mexican American youth movement of pachucos, who identified themselves by highly stylized ‘zoot suits’ and an English-Spanish dialect that today might be called an early form of Spanglish.

Speaking at a news conference with National Theater Company leaders last week, Valdez described directing ‘Zoot Suit’ in Mexico as a great honor.

‘For me, it is the realization of a dream, and a final point of a long journey, a circle, you could say, that begins 100 years ago, when my paternal grandparents were married in Nogales, Sonora, where my father was born,’ Valdez said.

On Wednesday night, theater students and members of the media attended a preview performance of the show. Several audience members who were interviewed after the performance said ‘Zoot Suit’ was their first exposure to Chicano theater, and to a history of ethnic and racial discrimination that is not well-known south of the border.

‘Zoot Suit’ runs through July 4 at the Teatro Juan Ruiz de Alarcon at the cultural center on the UNAM campus. A symposium addressing Chicano theater and the issues depicted in ‘Zoot Suit’ is scheduled for late June, organized by Pomona College theater professor Alma Martinez, a longtime collaborator with Valdez and an invited actress in the Mexico City production.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City