Someday, maybe Luis Valdez’s 1978 play Zoot Suit will be treated with the humble reverence and respect afforded any museum piece, as something that was groundbreaking and pioneering in its time, but also stuck in time, with no relevance to contemporary audiences.
It’s painfully apparent that day isn’t today.
“This is a great piece of theater, a transcendent piece of theater, and as a story, it holds up no matter [your] culture or where you’re from because it’s about people overcoming injustice,” says Miguel Perez, who plays El Pachuco in the current production from Santa Ana College and its new professional partner, Shakespeare Orange County. “But what distresses me is that it is still as relevant and fresh and meaningful as it was when it was first produced and created. . . . I’m sick of it being relevant. I would love it to be a charming historical piece that has some nice resonance rather than being ripped from the front pages . . . and hopefully, that day will come.”
In its premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, Zoot Suit was less of a play opening than a cultural movement announcing itself to a far wider audience: For the first time, a major American regional theater had given a Chicano playwright a chance to be heard. And Valdez, who honed his storytelling craft in the agricultural fields of California’s Central Valley alongside Cesar Chavez, wasn’t shy about using his voice. His play had rich source material—the wrongful arrest and conviction of 12 Latino youths in connection with a murder in LA County and its aftermath, a violent summer of 1943, during which hordes of U.S. military personnel ganged up on and beat down Mexican Americans.
The form was even more compelling, incorporating everything from pachuco street slang (caló) and Brechtian alienation (constantly reminding people they were watching a play) to Aztec mythology and Valdez’s brand of social and political activism. There was history, myth, social protest, poetry, generational and racial conflict, swing and mambo music and dance, and, of course, those phenomenal costumes.
This production has all of that, but there’s also something else: a white, female director, Amberly Chamberlain, in her second year as an assistant theater professor at Santa Ana College. “I know there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny,” says Chamberlain. “I don’t speak Spanish; I’m a woman. So I am constantly checking and balancing to make sure everything is done right and appropriate. There is no way I am going to dishonor the culture of a show that means so much to people.”
She has a lot of help in ensuring the show’s authenticity, including a diverse production team and cast and Chris Cannon, who directed Zoot Suit there in 2012 and is the chairman of the college’s theater department. But her greatest asset in keeping it real may be her students, 85 percent of whom are Hispanic.
“So many of them grew up and live in Santa Ana and live with the daily fears of deportation,” she said. “And [this play] is part of their heritage and possibly their family history. . . . So I think about what it means to them, and I hope to honor that the best I can.”
For Perez, playing the mystical, street-smart, cool-as-fuck narrator/trickster and embodiment of the Zoot Suit culture of the period means he’s paying tribute to the experience of a young man in the Marines who drove with a friend from Camp Pendleton to Los Angeles to see the original production. (He said the Chicano in him was alive and engaged that night; the Marine not so much.) More important, Perez is honoring his father, a real-life pachuco who had put away the zoot suit and its lifestyle long before Perez was born, but whose stories “created a kind of mythic atmosphere about those days.”
That’s why when Perez first saw the costume he’d be wearing (courtesy of the Fullerton shop El Pachuco Zoot Suits), he felt it. “I got a little choked up,” he says. “I immediately thought of my father—the way he carried himself, the way he stood. I only had one picture of him in his zoot suit, but he looked like a prince. And without even thinking of it, I took on the feeling about him. And these two sweet ladies who were fitting me said, ‘You look so nice. Now stand up, puff up your chest’—sort of coaching me. And then they said, ‘You look beautiful.’ It was a sweet moment.”
Zoot Suit at Santa Ana College’s Phillips Hall, 1530 W. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 564-5661; shakespeareoc.org. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through Aug. 18. $10-$40.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???