It is a bit of SoCal history relegated to a forgotten file cabinet, seemingly as outdated as the file cabinet itself. Fortunately, the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the Los Angeles riots of the early 1940s have been broughtI out, dusted off, dramatized, and brilliantly showcased in song, dance, and dialogue at San Diego’s Repertory Theatre. Unfortunately, the themes of racial tension and ethnic profiling that were the foci of the original play are relevant today. (Can you say, Sheriff Joe Arpaio?)
But that disheartening social significance is no reason to avoid what this energetic, exciting, thoroughly entertaining production of Luis Valdez’ classical Zoot Suit has to offer. Among those theatrical gifts are: a knock-out cast skillfully directed by Kirsten Brandt, a snazzy jazz band worthy of the current club scene directed by Hiram Garza, Javier Velasco’s smart choreography danced with flash and flamboyance by ensemble and leads alike, music and lyrics by Lalo Guerrero, Luis Valdez, and Daniel Valdez , with arrangements and orchestrations by Bill Doyle and Hiram Garza, respectively, that carry on after the final curtain, and a script that pulls history into contemporary without losing its focus or substance.
The story is based on actual events that prompted and resulted from the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial of 1942 when a group of Mexican gang members--called pachucos—were falsely charged, convicted, and imprisoned for murder. The title comes from the outfits worn by young Mexican men, and some women, characterized by long, slicked back hair, balloon pants tight at the ankles, elongated coattails, and lengthy silver watch chains. In an age when minorities were supposed to remain in society’s background, the zoot suit (called “a drape” by those who wore it) made a statement of power and non-conformity that rankled the establishment.
Racial tensions in wartime, when people were uncertain and fearful and the media were looking for sensationalism, polarized the populace and often exploded in fights, gang wars, and police roundups. In Los Angeles, where thousands of young men from a segregated military came to celebrate shore leave, the conflicts often escalated, fueled by booze, sex, and the perception of white privilege. Yet, the young men and women of all races would not be denied the merrymaking and lovemaking that defined their age and gave life to their experiences. That entire social scene is depicted in this play, and thanks to James Newcomb’s animated fight choreography, Kevin Anthenill’s sharp sound design, and David Lee Cuthbert’s spot-on scenic, lighting, and projection design, the action and activity never wane. This play is about people, as much as it is about events and happenings. And it is the characters’ lives that create the meaningful universal relevance of this story.
Presiding over the play and intensifying the action is the mythical character, El Pachuco, (brilliantly and expressively wrought by Raul Cardona) who, is at times, a commentator, at others a participant and, once, even a sacrifice. In true trickster fashion (and his outfit is the best of designer Mary Larson’s vibrant costumes), he remains mostly uncommitted, preferring mischief and mayhem over involvement. El Pachuco speaks solely to Henry Reyna, the elder son in a close-knit family, who leads the gang and the neighborhood. Lakin Valdez captures Henry’s controlled anger and explosive machismo to maximum effect, underlining the injustice that is integral to the play’s credible action. This production is in partnership with San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, which is distinguished by the young actors, musicians, and technical crew whose professionalism belies their age and experience. Michael S. Garcia, who plays Henry’s younger and more volatile brother, Rudy, is a shining example, and he is certainly one to watch. The entire ensemble proves that youth and quality work can go together.
Civil rights activism, however, sometimes produces unique associations, as depicted in the character of Alice Bloomfield (an earnest, yet intense Jo Anne Glover), a passionate advocate for the imprisoned gang members, and George Shearer (a sincerely convincing James Newcomb), the gang’s optimistic white defense attorney. Because neither appears to be of minority descent, their “street cred” and motivations come into question by the very people for whom they work so tirelessly. Alice, particularly, is called upon to justify her involvement with minority issues, until, in one dynamic scene with Henry, she proves her mettle.
Other mettle-proving performances come from John Padilla as patriarch Enrique Reyna, Mark Pinter as the Joe Friday-type Lieutenant Edwards and the entitled Judge F.W. Charles, Maya Malan-Gonzalez as Henry’s love interest Della Barrios, and John Nutten in several roles, including the scary police Sergeant Smith, who epitomizes the misuse of power behind the badge.
He and Sheriff Joe would probably be drinking buddies today. But that would be a story for another time, drawn from a different file. Or, would it?
“Zoot Suit” continues on the San Diego Repertory Theatre stage through Sunday, August 12.Performances are: Thurs-Sat at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Selected performances on Saturdays at 2 p.m and Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Consult www.sdrep.org for full schedule
Tickets are $31-$57, with discounts for groups, seniors, and military.
Reservations: at www.sdrep.org or by phone at (619) 544-1000.