Is 'Zoot Suit' in Fashion Again?

Nancy Churnin is a theater writer based in San Diego

A mystery lurks at the heart of "Zoot Suit," Luis Valdez's bold, mythic re-imagining of the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder of a Chicano youth in Los Angeles. Who did it? Who is responsible?

And then there's the mystery of what happened to "Zoot Suit," the play itself. A sensation when it premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in 1978, with its depiction of gangs and ducktails, media frenzy, music and World War II hysteria, Valdez's "Zoot Suit" broke molds, presaging a whole new sensibility for theater.

No one had ever put Chicano life so fully at center stage before. No one had reached out so successfully to Latino audiences, attracting an enviable cross section as it played 11 months to nearly sold-out houses--two at the Taper and an additional nine at the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood. It later traveled to New York to become the first Latino play on Broadway.

But the New York critics savaged it, so after five weeks on Broadway, the show closed. And for the past 18 years, it's never been produced again.

Now the San Diego Repertory Theatre is staging the first new production of "Zoot Suit" since Broadway, opening Oct. 3, as the company's season opener on its Lyceum Stage. Director William A. Virchis and artistic director Sam Woodhouse have been pursuing the rights for the last four years.

"They were injured a lot in the East," Virchis says during a rehearsal break, referring to the Broadway pans. "There was this mentality of, 'How dare these Chicanos come and leap, not walk, leap to Broadway?' "

In many ways, the silence that followed the play was like the hush in the crowd when the champion appears to be down for the count. But was it a knockout or was it just Round 1? Valdez, speaking by phone from his San Juan Bautista home near El Teatro Campesino, the theater he founded 32 years ago at a migrant farmers' camp with the blessing of Cesar Chavez, refers to the San Diego Rep production as "Round 2."

As for the silence, he suggests a confluence of factors for a play that might have been ahead of its time--in the East, at least: those chilling New York reviews, which he admits made him "resentful," and the refusal of Samuel French to publish the script in English. He says the publisher wanted a Spanish version, even though it had been written in English. It remained unpublished until 1992, when Arte Publico Press, a major publisher of Hispanic American literature at the University of Houston, took it on.

In addition, survivors of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder sued Valdez, the Aquarius Theater, the Music Center Operating Co. and K&K; Publishing and its subsidiaries for $2.5 million, claiming their privacy had been invaded. And though the suit was settled out of court, it didn't help the show's momentum.

Valdez also says he withheld the rights for new productions in the hope of a national tour, which never materialized. Also working against the show was the fact that he wanted to move on with other projects, including the 1981 film version of "Zoot Suit" starring Edward James Olmos, which was released a decade later on video, and his 1987 "La Bamba," the highest-grossing Latino film of all time, about the life and death of Richie Valens.

But the continuing lack of any Latino play on Broadway also discouraged him from trying again. "I don't mind being the first," he says. "I mind being the only."

Still, Valdez sees a more receptive environment today in a country "more aware not just of Latino issues, but of Latino history." He believes things would be different now, even in New York.

Teatros have sprung up across the country in the intervening years and outreach to minority audiences has become the norm. Ten years ago, the success of Valdez's "I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges" at the San Diego Rep kicked off its Teatro Sin Fronteras (Theater Without Borders) series, an outreach council that promotes the Rep's annual Latino plays in the San Diego community.

Valdez's experience with the Rep and Virchis, who staged his play, "Bandido!" at Southwestern College, where Virchis teaches, is one reason he trusted them with the first crack.

"I see an extended life for 'Zoot Suit' and I hope other companies will be able to tap into it," Valdez says. "This is part of a strategy for me to open up the play to the regional theaters, to give the regional theaters a piece that would give them the audiences that they might never have. I think there's a whole new generation to reach, a whole new generation in their teenage years who have seen the movie, but not the play."

Which leads to the questions: Will the new generation be interested? Are the themes still current? And will the older generation, who has seen it, expect a faithful replication of the Taper production?

Woodhouse remembers the original magic. He saw it at the Taper just two years after he and Douglas Jacobs co-founded the San Diego Rep.

"I was thrilled, I jumped out of my seat. It was an event, a major community civic musical theater event," Woodhouse says on the phone from Chicago, where he was holding auditions for an open-ended run of "Buddy . . . The Buddy Holly Story" at the Apollo Theater in Lincoln Park.

But don't expect Virchis to direct a faithful re-creation of the 1978 magic. He couldn't. He has never seen the play that he has labored so hard to get.

"I think I am the only Chicano in the history of theater who has never seen the play. And when I rented it, my video machine ate it," Virchis says.

Virchis is working closely with Valdez's brother, Daniel Valdez, who played the original Henry Reyna, leader of the 38th Street Gang that was tried in a controversial mass prosecution after the Sleepy Lagoon murder that resulted in mass convictions that were later overturned on appeal.

Daniel Valdez is the musical consultant, writing new songs for the show. For the first time, there will be live music from a five-musician band. Virchis also plans to streamline the courtroom scenes to make them more film-like. One of his biggest challenges will be integrating 22 apprentice actors from Southwestern College with professional actors for this 41-character show, the largest production in the 22 seasons of San Diego Rep's history.

Still, with the memories, the expectations, the wealth of Latino plays in between that may color the perception of this groundbreaking work, Virchis feels the weight and privilege of enormous responsibility.

If all goes well, expect to see more productions of "Zoot Suit" cropping up in regional theaters. Valdez, who is currently working on a film about Chavez as well as a new play, sees this as a way of "throwing my hat back into the theater."

There is the possibility of a 20-year revival in Los Angeles in 1998-1999, Valdez says. But first, eyes are on the San Diego Rep production.

"I was just talking to Luis' wife and she said, 'Take care of our child. Now it's yours,' " Virchis said.

"I'm very, very nervous. And I feel very, very lucky. If I don't do another play in my life, this is the one to do."

"ZOOT SUIT," San Diego Repertory Theatre, Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego. Dates: Tuesdays, 7 p.m.; Wednesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 26. Prices: $20-$30. Phone: (619) 231-3586.

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