Lakin Valdez, actor in “Zoot Suit.”
Sam Woodhouse, artistic director of San Diego Repertory Theatre.
Related Story: 'Zoot Suit' Returns To SD Rep Stage
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. There's good news and bad news about the revival of the classic Chicano play, Zoot Suit at the San Diego rep. The bad news is some of of the same tense ethnic issues that spawned the play in the 1970s are still with us. The good news is the play still handles them with humor, attitude, and energy. This is a big production with a band, more than two dozen performers, and it's a coproduction with the San Diego school of performing arts. My guests, Joaquin Valdez, the lead actor. Welcome to the program.
VALDEZ: Thank you so much.
CAVANAUGH: And Sam Woodhouse is artistic director. Welcome back.
WOODHOUSE: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Give us a quick synopsis if you would.
WOODHOUSE: The play, well, are first of all, it's the most iconic landmark classic work of Chicano theatre in American history. It's based, inspired by a murder of a young man on a ranch in 1942 in Los Angeles, which led to a roundup of Latino youth and gangs, and an extreme case of racism and a trafficest of justice in which a number of people were convicted of murder and sent to life imprisonment unjustly. And a year later, the sentence was overturned, and the victory for justice is considered to be at that point in time the most significant victory for Mexican American rights in the history of America.
CAVANAUGH: You gave us the historical platform of this play. Why do you think it still resonates with audiences today?
WOODHOUSE: I said no, it doesn't resonate, it explodes with audiences today.
[ LAUGHTER ]
WOODHOUSE: I'm not kidding. But the piece has an amazing ability to slowly bring you into this exotic, unique, provocative, fabulous world with an extraordinary sense of style and swagger, incredible music, and it raises this group of people, these young Latinos, Chicanos to this level, this high level of high status and self-esteem that is such an amazingly affirmative study that the audience just stands up and will not stop clapping.
CAVANAUGH: Well, tell me about the explosion that you experience on stage.
VALDEZ: Well, are the audiences have been tremendous. I think just in our conversation before coming into the studio, we were just discussing how this response has just become more increasingly exuberant over the years. The play seems to just renew itself time and time again. Unfortunately a lot of the issues it brings up are still very much present in our political climate, such as scapegoating and the criminalization of youth, which is something that several communities in California and then around the country have experienced throughout the last few years. Well, longer than that. But the audience really has been able to identify with elements of the story, whether that be the youth themselves who actually see a mirror reflection of who they are in terms of their ability to stand up for their beliefs, but also just understanding the youthsful quality that comes to head when we experience a cultural collision what gives the experience of what it means to be an American.
CAVANAUGH: Could you tell us what a Zoot Suit is, actually and culturely?
VALDEZ: Well, the Zoot Suit is a very large and suit made of more material that people in the 1940s would have preferred not to have seen, to create this incredibly elaborate outfit. But the Pachuco itself, the hero that the character who functions as the MC and the Greek chorus throughout the play is just symbolically a representation of self-determination and the ability to define oneself in terms of the look and the esthetic that Chicanos saw themselves becoming in terms of identity.
CAVANAUGH: You play the lead, right?
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about him.
VALDEZ: Henry Reina is actually based on the actual historical figure, Henry levace. And Hank was also someone that people literally looked up to. He was a very tall man in reality. But there are several characters in the play that kind of are composites of several people that were a part of what was called the 38th street gang. And really in truth, they were not necessarily a gang. Of yes, they were probably guardians of the neighborhood. But by no means were they these violent brutes who actually would go on -- from street to street, you know, committing acts of crime and violence. Henry was such a historically fascinating character in terms of how much he positioned himself into areas of leadership. He was definitely a leader as far as the guys were concerned, his friends, the ones who were considered to be the members of the gang. And he was always known for his rebellious nature, for standing up for his beliefs early on in life, even when he was probably 13 or 14 years old. He refused to believe that Mexicans were second-class citizens. And he would actually do whatever he could to make that very clear. But in a very silent way as well.
CAVANAUGH: It sounds like you enjoy playing him.
VALDEZ: Oh, yeah! Henry is just one of those characters that in terms of dramatic literature, and then Chicano theatre is concerned is probably one of the most fascinating figures. His story is incredibly compelling, but his relationship to the other character, the Pachuco, is a fascinating subject. We see a cvonstant power struggle. And the play itself is nothing less than a struggle to determine history. And through the character of Henry Reina, we see through the Pachuco, his shadow self.
CAVANAUGH: Let me ask about the fact that this Zoot Suit is described as a play with music, but not a musical.
CAVANAUGH: So what music do we hear, and what distinguishes it from a musical, Sam?
WOODHOUSE: Well, it's -- there are not a great deal of songs that are sung that advance the plot, which is one definition of a musical. Most of the story is told in text. But in between that, there are a number of songs that are sung that are celebrating the Latin jazz, swing style from the early '40s. And the stage is literally just turning upside down with people swirling and spinning and flying between people's legs and over their heads.
CAVANAUGH: Right, uh-huh.
WOODHOUSE: And a 9-person band that plays this fabulous music written by Lalo Guerrero, who is the father of Chicano music, with lyrics by Luis Valdez. So there is a great deal of music and dance in the piece, but it is not a traditional musical. But it has all that entertainment value and splash and swagger that comes with Latin dance and the high-style Pachuco. It's a lot of really incredible people spinning and flying through the air.
CAVANAUGH: I have to ask you about the look. What is the look of the costumes and -- does the color match the vibrancy of the action?
WOODHOUSE: Yeah, well, you have purple in play, turquoise in play, you have a lime green in play, you have pants that rise up to, you know, above the man's naval, and with these young people these incredibly VALDEZ legs and sleek figures, and huge pleats, and VALDEZ-style coats with amazing head gear as well with feathers in the hat. We were talking about the Zoot Suit coming from Harlem, from the jazz in the late thirties in Harlem, then the Chicano culture adopted and expand happened as a statement of self-esteem, and look, check us out! Muy suave!
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: He believes that theatre has a real social responsibility. And in context of now, right now, do you you see Zoot Suit matching that requirement of theatre to have a social responsibility, and if you do, how does it do that?
VALDEZ: Well, the aim of my father's work was always to create theatre that didn't try to recreate reality but change reality. And Zoot Suit is really a testament to that mandate. You see it in his work in the past with the united farm workers, that definitely shifted the scope and the breath of the farm labor's movement. Zoot Suit like that tradition in a sense actually did change the nature of reality for the longest time, the Pachuco culture remained in the shadows, and it was only until this play was written that we saw the idealized image of the Pachuco emerge and become a point upon of cultural pride and identity and unity for a lot of people. Of that's why it was so propound when it came out, and to this day it still has a tremendous impact. That's really what defines my father's work as a playWright. He is a pioneer, and he has opened doors for many others in the American theatre. And to see that Zoot Suit is still very much alive and vibrant and continues to change and shift reality is just a powerful thing.
CAVANAUGH: Sam, you alluded to Zoot Suit as one of the seminal productions of the Latino theatre.
CAVANAUGH: Chicano, sorry. Luis Valdez also has an important history with San Diego rep.
WOODHOUSE: Well, he's one of my heroes, actually. I recall seeing the elteat row compassino, the company he founded perform on a flatbed track in the 1960s. And I said look at this. There's this fusion of theatre and politics and change and cultural care-taking going on that's both celebrating this movement and also attacking those who are attacking equality and fairness and justice in America. So there's a lot of values that I share with Luis Valdez, and consequently, when a large residence grand was made available to us, we spent six years with us in residence. San Diego rep has produced six plays by Valdez, and five plays by someone named William Shakespeare. That gives you a sense of how important his work is to us, to me, and to Southern California after all.
CAVANAUGH: In Jim Hebert's review, he made the point that there's an ironic line in Zoot Suit when one of the characters says I'm fed up with California, I'm going to pack up my wife and family and move to Arizona. And at that point apparently the audience just sort of explodes in laughter because we know that Arizona is not exactly a welcoming place, some people might say, for immigrant culture these days. What do you want the audience to get out of this production, are let me ask you, Sam?
WOODHOUSE: Well, there's an appreciation of California history. Frankly, a hell of a California story here that's really true. And then there's this sense of this journey, this extraordinarily complex and detailed and mythical culture, this Pachuco culture that many people don't know anything about, but that was all about self-esteem in the sense of style and respect and class.
CAVANAUGH: We have to end it there.