Reviving Zoot Suit in the Time of Trump
I saw the original production of Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum in 1978 and it left a profound impression on me; I remember Chicanos walking out of the theatre crying. The play was so moving because it showed the traumatic persecution of the Mexican American community in the 1940s. It was also one of the first times our stories were seen on the main stage of an important regional theatre. In a recent American Theatre interview with Jorge Huerta, Luis Valdez, the writer/director of Zoot Suit, said: “It’s a quintessential Los Angeles play. It touches on a period at the beginning of WWII when LA was coming into being—the movie industry was here, radio broadcasting, TV, a world that existed from the 1920s to the 1950s.”
So, why a revival of Zoot Suit today? It returned to the Mark Taper Forum in February, directed by now seventy-six year old Valdez, and ran through early April. Opening night was a veritable who’s who of Chicano stars, including the originator of the Pachuco, Edward James Olmos. Also in the audience was Cheech Marin, Culture Clash, Dan Guerrero, Josefina López, and other working artists and practitioners of El Teatro Campesino style.
Pachucos were attacked by the military and other white youth for wearing Zoot suits not only in Los Angeles, but in other urban areas like Detroit where Black youth affected the style.
In the 1940s, Mexicans learned to fashion a new identity uniquely their own by creating a persona like the Pachuco. According to Valdez, this figure became “the first Chicano neither Mexican nor American.” The boys adopted zoot suits and the girls wore short skirts that flew in the face of a more subdued, conservative (read Anglo Saxon) society. Mexican critic Octavio Paz, who lived in Los Angeles at the time, called the Pachucos “clowns” who provoked attacks and embodied “the extreme to which a Mexican can go.” Pachucos were attacked by the military and other white youth for wearing Zoot suits not only in Los Angeles, but in other urban areas like Detroit where Black youth affected the style.
Ironically, the current production features Mexican-born Demian Bichir, an Academy Award-nominated actor, as El Pachuco. Some questioned whether his accent was “affected” and other reviewers like Jesús Treviño noted: “It is almost impossible to separate the man (Bichir as El Pachuco) from the myth (the Olmos portrayal). And in a contest between man and myth, the myth will always win out.”
There have been other notable revivals of the play including one by El Teatro Campesino in 2002 that took place in the context of 9/11 and the wars in the Middle East. According to Associate Director Kinan Valdez, “We realized we were in the midst of another Zoot Suit-like moment and that an entire people were going to be scapegoated because of the way they looked and dressed. It became very clear to us that Zoot Suit was unfortunately a tale of being ‘othered.’”
We realized we were in the midst of another Zoot Suit-like moment and that an entire people were going to be scapegoated because of the way they looked and dressed. It became very clear to us that Zoot Suit was unfortunately a tale of being ‘othered.’ —Kinan Valdez
Given the current climate led by the state of Arizona, which bans books from the curriculum that bespeak of Mexican American history (framed as “subversive”), the issues are as relevant today as they were in 1942. [In fact,] a character in the play asks: “Is it 1492?” inferring the infamous Spanish Inquisition of Jews and Moors in Catholic Spain and the Americas.
We are now living in the Time of Trump, who began his campaign on June 16, 2015 with a speech labeling immigrants from Mexico “rapists” saying: “When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs.” A few weeks later he told CNN: “You have people come in and I'm not just saying Mexicans, I'm talking about people that are from all over, that are killers and rapists and they're coming to this country.”
One of the characters in the play, lawyer George Shearer (Brian Abraham), evokes Adolf Hitler when he proclaims we are at war “against the forces of racial intolerance and totalitarian injustice.” Peter Debruge wrote in Variety:
…the line earned a spontaneous ovation on opening night of the revival, as if it were written in anticipation of the heightened home-front racism Americans experience today. Valdez’s show captures the frustration of being caught on the wrong end of a rigged system, and though it was written long before the Trayvon Martin shooting or the LA riots, Zoot Suit fits better than ever today.
Other mostly white reviewers complained that the Anglo characters were “stereotypes,” or one-dimensional. Yet in my opinion, some of the most sympathetic characters were the Anglo lawyer and Jewish “Grandma” Alice Bloomfield (Tiffany Dupont), so named by one of the incarcerated “boys” who heads the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Fund. Valdez even created a white Pachuco, Tommy Roberts (Caleb Foote), who identifies as Chicano and goes to jail for his beliefs proving that Raza is not about race, but rather culture.
Clearly the audience response opening night in LA leaves no doubt that Zoot Suit is still relevant. The xenophobia against Latinos, Muslims and Jews—i.e. ICE raids, personal attacks on "others" based on race or religion, bomb threats, and the desecration of cemeteries—proves we are living in dangerous times.