Dallas — Zoot: used as a verb it means something done or worn in a big way, a grand or exaggerated style. The slang term has fallen into disuse but it aptly applies to Cara Mía Theatre Company’s production of Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez at the Dallas Latino Cultural Center. It tells the 1942 story of a Los Angeles area Mexican-American youth, Henry (Hank) Reyna and the 39th Street Gang and the racial profiling by the LAPD that gave way to false murder accusations, but for which three of the youths were sent to life sentence at San Quentin (the verdict was later repealed). The story of the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial is biographical, based on the life of Henry Leyvas and the 1942 case of the People v. Zamora, the largest mass trial in California history. It is synonymous with institutionally sanctioned racial prejudice within the U.S. judicial system.
The play (and later the 1981 film) Zuit Suit, stand as a beacon in the history of Chicano/a and Latina/o theater history. Zoot Suit shattered all box office records when it premiered on July 28, 1978 in Los Angeles. The production, commissioned by the Mark Taper Forum, opened the 1978-1979 season and continued its run at the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood. It debuted as the first Chicano theatrical production (and a musical at that!) on Broadway in New York on March 25, 1979. Its theatrical success convinced Universal Studios to convert Zoot Suit into the first Chicano-written, -performed and -directed feature length film in history. The cast featured Edward James Olmos as El Pachuco and Danny Valdez as Henry Reyna.
These are big shoes to fill. Luis Valdez of the famed Teatro Campesino is selective about granting production rights. He would be more than pleased with Cara Mía’s current production at the Dallas Latino Cultural Center. A tightly written script written by Luis Valdez, plus jazzy boogie music with a touch of cumbia and rhumba to spice things up and lyrics by Daniel Valdez and Lalo Guerrero (Guerrero was officially declared a national folk treasure by the Smithsonian Institution in 1980), the play offers an evening of entertainment with a mighty social conscience. From dance/song numbers like “Chicas Patas Boogie,” “Los Chucos Suaves,” “Vamos a Bailar,” and my two personal favorites, “Marijuana Boogie” and “Handball,” the CM cast pulled out all stops to strut their stuff in this production.
The creative team of Rodney Garza and Ariana Cook (producer) as co-directors, David Lozano (executive producer), Jessie Zarazaga (scenic design), Linda Blasé (lighting), Ryan Matthieu-Smith (costume design), S-Ankh Rasa (musical director/band leader), Michelle Gibson (choreographer), Jeff Colangelo (fight choreographer), Christopher M. Ham (technical director/sound engineer), and Tish Mussey (properties design) reached another notch of professional finesse with this, CM’s first Broadway musical. In the scenic design I was struck by the use of tall steel rods in a lineal yet scant architectural style. Besides effectively providing a jail-like visual reference, it accomplished multiple functions. It signals the rigidity of the legal system (stasis, restriction) through those shiny but inflexible rods versus the fluidity of the human (inter)action (entrances and exits, dance, etc). It also gives the impression of permeability through light changes and the effective use of backlit screens, which frames some key moments in slow motion action.
Other than the wonderful live music, singing and dancing—which moves the action along this full-bodied piece, the dedication that Rodney Garza puts into this play is evident. Garza, whose dream has been to produce this play in Dallas, was selected to perform with Luis Valdez’s company during Zoot Suit’s 25th anniversary national tour in 2004.
Nobody is better suited (no pun intended) to guide and star in this project. This was evident in the talk-backs at the end of the play. The positive representation of Chicano culture in plays such as this one, and in El Chuco Loves Che (which Cara Mía produced in 2012), runs part and parcel with the love of his craft. All of the 38th Street “boys” (Ramirez as Henry, Ivan Jasso as Smiley, Jonah Gutierrez as Joey Castro and Jeff Colangelo as Tommy Roberts) have chemistry. Their solid friendship and loyalty to each other resonates true. The alter ego relationship between El Pachuco and Henry goes beyond being just a voice in his head. These two are carnales (brothers).
The ladies, including Rosaura Cruz as Reyna’s girlfriend Della Barrios and the Pachucas (Lorena Davey, Natalia Dubrov, Graham Galloway, Lorena Davey) and Priscilla Rice as Bertha, Krishma Trejo as Lupe and the inimitable Frida Espinoza-Mὒller as Henry’s and Rudy’s mother, Dolores, all have their brilliant moments on stage.
Proving that the juiciest roles go to the bad guys, the Press/Prosecutor is played by Justin Locklear with just the right amount of malice and cynicism, as did Mark Wilt as Judge/Shore Patrol Man and Jacob Drum as the Bailiff. A couple of times I had to refrain from booing out loud at some of their racial slurs and abuses of the judicial system. The righteous lawyer George Shearer (Brian Witkowitz) and the sincere and well-meaning activist Alice Bloomfield (Whitney Holotik) held the dark forces at bay with a bit of humor and even a kiss.
But let’s get back to basics: what is a zoot suit you may ask? Where did this term come from? The exact origin is not known, according to researcher Holly Alford in her essay "The Zoot Suit: Its History and Influence" in Fashion Theory; however, it is deeply rooted in the hipster Jazz Era. As part of the popular spread of swing music, which transcended racial and economic lines, zuit suit hipsters went transnational before the term was coined in the 1990’s as a cultural and economic phenomenon. During the 1940s their following extended to Austria, Germany, the Soviet Union, Canada, Britain and France, where it was a huge fashion hit. In the fashion industry, the zoot suit is hailed as the first truly American male suit garment. It was later modified and integrated into mainstream fashion by the 1940s and 50s. Ultimately it ended up referring to a style of clothing worn by young African-American men and Chicanos between the ages of 16 and 20, starting from the 1930s through WWII in dance halls and street scenes in lower economic urban areas such as Harlem, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta. In California and Texas, the term Pachuco/Pachuca emerged to signify a lower economic, blue collar Hispanic worker. The term Chicano/a evolved simultaneously, referring to second generation Mexican Americans. The fashion statement was meant as a positive self-identity marker that differentiated African-American and Latino youths from their Anglo counterparts (later to be appropriated by mass market) much in the same way that youth today identify with hip-hop style, culture and music across national borders—as well as racial and economic classes.
During the talk back, comments from educators and students pointed to the fact that history books do not tell certain stories. This is one of them. Given the current climate, led by the state of Arizona, which bans books from the curriculum that bespeak of Mexican American history (framed as “subversive”), the issues are as relevant today as they were in 1942, or as a character in the play asks: “Is it 1492?” inferring the infamous Spanish Inquisition of Jews and Moors in Catholic Spain and the Americas.
On the lighter side of the spectrum, I took a friend with me, a scientist who is not particularly interested in theater and who is not Hispanic. At the end, when I asked what he thought of the play, his response was: “Entertaining.” There you have it. Sometimes one word says it all.
» Teresa Marrero is Associate Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Theater in the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the national network the Latina/o Theater Commons and a member of the Dallas area cultural group TANTO.Z