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[whitespace] 'Zoot' Salute

Luis Valdez's famed 'Zoot Suit' retains its power in revival production

By Rob Pratt

Great theater often has elements of agitprop. Even when it's devoid of explicitly political propaganda, theater at its best leaves audiences empowered, activated to live life more consciously and to view the world more vividly. Playwright Luis Valdez does all of that very directly and elegantly. Valdez, who began his career as a producer of theater while a San Jose State University student, founded the teatro Chicano movement, which incorporates a mélange of agitprop and traditional theatrical elements from both European and Mexican culture. His best-known work, Zoot Suit, running in an excellent 25th anniversary revival production at the San Jose Center for Employment Training's newly remodeled Antonio R. Soto Theater, presents the true story of a shameful racist episode in California history with artful staging, beautiful language and a powerful subtext that calls for transforming cultural clashes into opportunities for cross-cultural understanding.

Zoot Suit tells the story of Henry Reyna, whose gang of zoot suit­attired Mexican-American youths in Los Angeles are charged en masse during 1942's headline-grabbing Sleepy Lagoon murder case. In Valdez's play, El Pachuco, the archetypal zoot-suiter, narrates the show and acts as the conscience or the inner voice of Reyna.

Director Kinan Valdez has assembled an excellent young cast with a number of standout players. Lakin Valdez does a magnificent job negotiating the deeply interior journey of Henry Reyna, who faces ugly racial politics and still holds out hope for creating Latino-Anglo common cause as America fights World War II. Heather Pauley likewise turns in a clear and sympathetic rendering of a complex figure, Alice Bloomfield, a communist activist who organizes the defense of Reyna and his gang and who manages to endure the rough and tumble of coalition politics with unflagging optimism. Raul Sabino Cardona plays El Pachuco with a beautiful balance of style, swagger and menace. Also excellent are Ricky Amaya as Joey Castro, one of Reyna's 38th Street Gang sidekicks, Sandra Longoria as Della Barrios, Reyna's girlfriend, and Anahuac Valdez representing the racist white Angelino establishment as the press and the prosecutor.

Michael Oesch's painterly lighting design makes excellent use of projected patterns to suggest the utility pole­lined streets of East Los Angeles and the caged interior of San Quentin, and he creates beautiful shadow effects that use illusion for emotional impact at gruesome moments in the play. If this production has a failing, it's in sound design. Actors singing onstage are accompanied by recorded orchestrations, and the microphone balance is often uneven or inaudible. This production of Zoot Suit nonetheless presents a definitive staging of a landmark of American theater, a work with a uniquely Chicano and Californian voice and a gripping and difficult yet ultimately hopeful story.

Zoot Suit plays Wednesday at 11am (student matinee), Thursday­Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7:30pm through Sept. 11 at the Center for Employment Training's Antonio R. Soto Theater, 701 Vine St., San Jose. Tickets are $22­$45. (925.275.9005)

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From the September 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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