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Well Suited: Even after 25 years, 'Zoot Suit' looks like cutting-edge theater with its mix of styles.

'Zoot' Case

Luis Valdez brings his seminal musical drama to San Jose for revival run

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'YOUNG PEOPLE see Zoot Suit, the play, as an event of youth, a celebration and examination of youth," says playwright/director Luis Valdez, "and the show does seem to have gained even more youthful vitality over the years. Theatrically, with a cast that includes a lot of triple-threat twentysomethings who can sing, dance and act, all that youth and vitality and excitement is a very powerful force in the theater for any audience, but it's especially attractive to the young, who are looking for something that will stir their energies and speak to who and where they are."

It's been 25 years since Zoot Suit first strutted its way onto the stages of America, shaking up the theater world with its canny blend of music, real-life drama, Latino history, mysticism and cultural psychology. Valdez's legendary musical drama, a retelling of the infamous Hollywood zoot suit riots, the subsequent Sleepy Lagoon murder and the railroading of Chicano gang members in 1942, went on to become Broadway's first-ever Hispanic-culture production. A low-budget film version, released in 1981, starring Edward James Olmos and directed by Valdez, has since become that rare animal: a Latino cult film with wide crossover appeal.

"It has its fans, that movie," Valdez says with a chuckle.

Valdez, who went on to write and direct the film La Bamba, first staged Zoot Suit as part of his Teatro Campesino, a theater company that began as a grassroots troupe formed to spread information and raise funds for Caesar Chavez's grape boycott and farmworkers' strike. Since establishing a theater and a theater-arts facility in San Juan Bautista, El Teatro Campesino has produced dozens of plays, most of them written and directed by Valdez. With the immense critical and financial success of Zoot Suit, Valdez and company established themselves as a major creative force.

Now, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Zoot Suit is hitting the road again, beginning a national tour with a two-week stint in San Jose. This initial run is in itself a remarkable, and typically creative, production: a partnership between El Teatro Campesino and San Jose's Center for Employment Training. The production will take place in the newly refurbished Anthonio R. Soto Theatre on the CET campus.

"It's a very happy arrival, a very felicitous union," says Valdez of the partnership with CET, of which the avidly political Valdez is a firm supporter. "In and of itself, the CET is an amazing success story, as far as community involvement goes," he says. "It all came out of the 1960s ideologies. They took over the Woodrow Wilson School in San Jose, and turned it into a cooking school and training facility aimed at teaching restaurant skills and hard-core skills like metal working and construction. There are paintings of Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. on the walls. It's a whole environment designed to inspire people to acquire working skills and to become the best person they can be."

Now CET has refurbished its old auditorium, investing thousands of dollars toward making it a professional middle-sized theater with some 600 seats.

"It's a fine facility," Valdez says. "With all the refurbishing it's gone through, it's in better shape than a lot of theaters I've been in on Broadway. It's right downtown, and it's at CET, which has a substantial support in the San Jose community. All of that is going to work out well for Zoot Suit and other shows that will be performed there in the future."

There have been relatively few productions of Zoot Suit since its initial run ended in the early '80s, in part because Valdez has been careful about whom he'd lend the rights to. At the beginning of 2003, El Teatro Campesino launched a successful production of Zoot Suit that ran six months at the company's San Juan Bautista theater. "It was at 100 percent capacity every night," says Valdez. "And a lot of the people who were coming were young people, teenagers who weren't even born when Zoot Suit was first presented. There seemed to be a lot of excitement. Maybe it wasn't the same kind of visceral excitement we saw in L.A. 25 years ago, because a lot of the people who came to see it in L.A. were witnesses or even participants in the events of the play; many of them remembered the things the play was re-creating."

Valdez believes that the young people who packed the theater last year were identifying with the play's core struggle, a battle of wills between the main character, Henry, and El Pachuco, his imaginary alter ego, a zoot-suited icon of masculinity, aggression and violence.

In the film version, El Pachuco was played by Olmos, and while the film delighted many, it provoked certain critics who couldn't wrap their heads around Valdez's inventive storytelling style, a blend of classic film methods and live theater. The movie was filmed at the Aquarius Theater in L.A., and occasional cuts to the watching audience, and one or two scenes shot in the theater lobby as stage characters break the fourth wall and invade the real world, remind viewers that Zoot Suit is at its heart a theatrical piece.

"I always felt that the zoot suit itself, and the zoot suiters, were theatrical creatures," Valdez explains. "It was like theater on the streets. My idea was that the United States was coming out of the Great Depression, and people needed something to express their release, their freedom from the economic downturn. It came to me that the clothes that emerged with the big-band sound at the end of the '30s and the beginning of the '40s, expressed this need to do something flamboyant. So, the zoot suit became popular. It was on the streets."

Valdez believes it was no accident that young people were the progenitors of the zoot-suit craze of the 1940s, and it's no surprise that young audiences have developed an affinity for Zoot Suit, the movie and the play. "It's the most natural thing in the world," he says. "Every generation achieves maturity and adulthood in its late teens and 20s, and every generation wants to solidify that adulthood with a look, a style, a music, a slang, something. Every generation has a need to leave its mark on the world, and while they don't all succeed to the same level, the generation we're portraying in Zoot Suit was distinctive in that they captured something that to this day stands as an emblem of American identity."

Valdez is certain that those emblems will find resonance with today's audiences, young and old—though especially with the young. "It's nice the way young people walk out of the theater and they all have that pachuco strut when they leave," Valdes says with a laugh. "There's something very seductive about that guy."


Zoot Suit previews Thursday-Friday at 8pm, with a gala opening Saturday at 8pm. Regular shows are Tuesday (Sept. 7) at 8pm, Wednesday at 11am, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7:30pm through Sept. 11 at the Antonio R. Soto Theatre, CET, 7001 Vine St., San Jose. Tickets are $32-$45 (gala $150). (925.275.9005)


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From the August 25-31, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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