A complicated history

Hosted by

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

On the opening night of Zoot Suit, the Mark Taper Forum was filled with an energy you don't often feel at openings anymore. In the moments before the curtain was ceremonially slit with a giant switchblade, I heard a Latino man say to a friend, "The last time I was in this theater it was 40 years ago. I was eight."

Forty years ago, Zoot Suit, written by Luis Valdez, was one of the Mark Taper Forum's defining moments under Gordon Davidson. Here was a political play written by a Latino mixing English and Spanish, with Chicanos capturing the history, and present, of Los Angeles. Mr. Valdez, himself, is quoted as saying that back in 1978, "On opening night, when the character of El Pachuco ... swaggered onto the Taper stage, Chicano theatre became American theatre."

Forty years later, the play and the theater still have work to do. The play is built around a court case surrounding the infamous 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder and the Zoot Suit riots of the following year.

That history, and distance, was palpable. Touchingly, when both Rose Portillo and Daniel Valdez made their entrances onstage as the mother and father, they received warm applause. You see, 40 years ago these two actors played the two young lovers in the original production. How fitting that they should return as the production's elders.

It would be nice to say that this production only speaks to the past. Even when it originally opened, the dramatic engine of Zoot Suit was built on unearthing our history through newspaper headlines and court documents to speak to our present. Still, it's jarring how directly the play speaks to us now.

It still shocks an audience when the first moments of the play are in Spanish reversing our Anglo expectations. It's painful how topical a court case about discrimination and civil liberties can be. When the prosecution suggests that these men are a threat to the American way of life and part of a growing crime wave ... well, let's just say the play need not argue for why it's still relevant in the age of Twitter.

When the defense attorney responds with, "I have tried my best to defend what is most precious in our American society – a society now at war against the forces of racial intolerance and totalitarian injustice," the opening night audience erupted with applause.

Now, everything in Zoot Suit doesn't work. The production numbers range from energetically essential to oddly extraneous. Demián Bichir, who plays the ever-present role of El Pachuco, has the physical presence to carry the part but not the vocal ease with either the singing or the dialect. His words feel like the relatives of those Mr. Valdez demands, related but distant.

What will strike you is the moral complexity of the story and the complications of history. This is a play that doesn't settle for hollow heroes who always do right or for simple demonization based only on fear.

Don't miss Zoot Suit. It's an essential piece of Los Angeles' history and, painfully, our political present.

Zoot Suit plays at the Mark Taper Forum downtown through March 26.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.

Photo: The cast of the revival of Zoot Suit © 2017 Craig Schwartz