Viva la Myth
Zoot Suit revives the spirit of El Pachuco.
Thursday, July 19, 2007
A giant blade sliced through from behind the printed curtain hanging center-stage, through the large headlines—Los Angeles, 1943—through the hum of a bustling audience that filled the room as the second preview performance of >>Zoot Suit opened at Teatro Campesino last weekend under the direction of Kinan Valdez.
The first preview shows sold out at full price while the kinks were still being worked out with the cast, set, lighting, sound, backstage and the front of the house, before the run opens with a gala on Saturday, July 21. Audience members greeted each other exuberantly, carrying glasses of margaritas or bottles of beer. If it felt like a party of old friends, maybe that’s just what it was, as this iconic play by Luis Valdez (Keenan’s father) returns to the former fruit-packing shed in San Juan Bautista that has been the home stage for Valdez’ influential El Teatro Campesino for the last 26 years.
The din subsided as the house lights dimmed and a sharp, slender figure in scarlet shirt followed the blade through the sliced curtain to study the audience with an insouciant stare. With a ritualized deliberateness, he assumed his character: the spirit, the myth of El Pachuco. Smoothing his scar-thin moustache and slick, curly hair, adjusting the calf-length gold-tone chain swinging from his belt, crimping the crease in his trousers that begin tight and high-waisted above the belt, drape wide below his knees and diminish to a tight peg at his ankles above mirror-shined, thick-soled shoes. Shrugging on a tailored long jacket with wide lapels and exaggerated shoulders, he stroked his flat-brimmed hat, blowing fondly on the scarlet feather to puff it up before placing it firmly on his head. Looking at the audience he slid one foot forward and leaned back in a sharp-angled hinge: “Esé,” he hissed.
The character of El Pachuco was a persona worn by rebellious young Chicanos in the barrios of East Los Angeles in the early ’40s. Their uniform was the zoot suit. With over-the-top colors and patterns, broad shoulders and narrow hips, the suits demanded to be worn with a swagger, and shouted “other” with a strong voice and exaggerated pride that was itself a defiance of all the beatings—physical, emotional, economic and political—that the zoot-suiters’ brown skin had borne.
El Pachuco speaks with the voice of cynical reason. He is the personification of every bad influence with good intentions that a young person coming of age listens to or ignores, every bit of stupid advice from big brother, wild playmate or their own heads, that says “what the hell,” and pushes a kid to stupid and dangerous action, pausing only to blow the feather into shape.
>>Zoot Suit is loosely based on the true story of Henry Leyvas, leader of an East LA gang, who with his comrades was wrongly accused, railroaded, jailed and finally released in the famous Sleepy Lagoon murder trial that preceded the infamous zoot-suit riots of 1943, when hundreds of sailors on leave entered the East LA barrio to beat up “zooters.”
On the small stage of El Teatro, the members of a very young cast step into roles of mythic proportions and comport themselves with great success overall.
Michael Uribes as El Pachuco sidles through the play, a one-man Greek chorus, manning the myth with just the right amount of badass wisdom. “You know she wants it,” he advises Henry in a clinch, and later he taunts a reporter: “Zoot Suit—all it is for you guys is another way to say Mexican.” His El Pachuco is drawn in one very large dimension, slipping easily into song in the musical numbers.
As Henry, Adrian Torres has the most challenging role, requiring a more natural style of acting. With clenched-jaw rage he wrings out the needed intensity to stand out among his vatos as a believable leader. When the script requires a smile or a casual exchange, however, he seems unable to let go of that rigid clench and relax into another side of his character.
Jessica Wynn as Henry’s girlfriend is uncomfortably shrill, delivering lines in a shouting monotone, but is the only member of the cast who hits a wrong note—small flaws that will probably be worked out in the previews. Overall, using local talent and open auditions, Kinan Valdez has forged an effective ensemble cast.
The choreography by Laura Akard uses the small stage brilliantly and captures the era and the mood. I am glad to have seen this play in this place, and to hear that the run is headed for a sellout.
Zoot Suit continues at El Teatro Campesino, 705 Fourth St., San Juan Bautista, through Sept. 16. Tickets are $18-$30. 623-2444 or elteatrocampesino.com.