Monday, March 13, 2017

Orale, Zoot Suit!

Minutes before the show began, the closed curtain looked like a giant newspaper with the title "WAR EXTRA: American Bomber Victim of Jap Raider" and several other headlines, including: "Grand Jury to Act in Zoot Suit War."  When the lights faded to black, a silver blade jutted out and ripped the middle of the curtain, trailing down to the bottom in rhythm with the snappy music that started to play.  A zoot suit pant leg stretched out of the hole like a lady's leg in a black stocking stretching out from behind the red curtain.  The crowd rumbled.  Finally, the mustached zoot suiter stepped out from the curtain and leaned so far back he was almost lying down, and the crowd cheered.  It was El Pachuco.

Us Mexicans we dress dapper, ese.

Luis Valdez's 1978 hit show Zoot Suit had returned to the stage, telling the story of Henry Reyna and the infamous historical Sleepy Lagoon murder trial that wrongfully imprisoned a group of Mexican American youths.  As Henry transitions from a starry-eyed, soon-to-be Navy man to an embittered prisoner, his El Pachuco conscience follows him to remind him that "America is not your country" and to break the fourth wall to the audience in his throaty, drawling voice.  The Pachuco periodically breaks into song with his trio of pachuco girls and an impressive choreography with the rest of the cast.  He and the other characters throw in Spanish, English, and the pachuco dialect throughout, which is great to express the culture, but for pochas like me it makes it harder to catch all the jokes.  I only have my two-year-old self to blame for refusing to learn Spanish from my mother.

I loved all the subtle ways the play hinted at the ties between the Jewish and Chicano experience during World War II.  Through Henry's interactions with Jewish activist Alice Bloomfield, the Pachuco's offhand comment that Chicanos were fighting Nazis at home, or the music sequence where the pachuco girls step out in red dresses and black hats - the play shows no qualms in tearing down America's idealized image of itself as the savior of WWII.  There's also a religious parallel in the Pachuco figure.  During the Zoot Suit Riots, navy officers are stripping Mexicans of their zoot suits, so the Pachuco pushes the other characters aside to take the brunt.  When the officers finish with him, he falls to the floor wearing only a loin cloth, a Christ-like martyr representing the death of the Chicano spirit.  However, it's not long before the Pachuco rises again in a pristine white zoot suit to greet Henry.

I'm sure you can tell, but the Pachuco steals the show.  Some of the best moments and most biting lines come from him - particularly during his fourth wall breaks.  When Henry is tempted to kill the rival Downey gang member in a brawl, the Pachuco stops him to point out the audience, who has apparently paid good money to watch him kill somebody.  Henry refrains.  For the first of the play's alternate endings, the LA Times character claims Henry did go on to kill a fellow prisoner, but the Pachuco interrupts "That's what you'd like to think," before presenting two other possible endings where Henry becomes a war hero and a family man.  The play invites the audience to make what they will of the story, a fascinating ambiguity that fiddles with history and fiction, pessimism and hope.

The show will go on until April 2, 2017, but hurry if you're thinking of buying a ticket!  If they're not too hella expensive by now.  There's a film version out there too that you can consider watching if that's the case.


  1. Sounds amazing. Wish I could see it.

  2. I'm glad I had the opportunity to see it. Orale.