Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
August 3, 2012
Orale! The Pachucos are back – with their wide-brimmed hats, draped-shape suits, and signature slouch. They defined an era and a sensibility.
Los Angeles was sizzling in the summer of 1943 – war abroad and war on the streets. The Pachucos were Chicanos asserting their individuality sartorially, and the gangs they formed were set upon by equally macho men in their own uniforms – of the military sort. It all came to a head with the slaying of a young Latino man in a barrio just outside L.A. Two dozen members of the 38th Street Pachuco gang were unjustly arrested and indicted, and the infamous Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial ensued, a kangaroo court fanned by racism and yellow journalism. When the guilty verdict for the young men was announced, the Zoot Suit Riots began and spread across the nation.
This is the story that inspired Luis Valdez to create “Zoot Suit,” his masterful drama with music and dance, which in 1978, became the first Chicano play ever to appear on Broadway, with Valdez as Broadway’s first Latino/Chicano director. With its presentational style, agit-prop politics and raucous, saucy bilingual swagger, the piece still packs a powerful punch.
When the San Diego Repertory Theatre presented “Zoot Suit” in 1997, it was the first production to use a live onstage band. This is the second. Splendidly directed by Kirsten Brandt, ingeniously designed by David Lee Cuthbert and choreographed by Javier Velasco, the show is spectacularly entertaining, enlightening and informative – everything you want in a theater experience.
This marks the third partnership of the San Diego Rep and the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. Under the musical direction of Bill Doyle, the brassy, 9-piece, all-youth band is terrific; the young dancers are energetic but somewhat less precise.
The lead actors are uniformly superb, especially Lakin Valdez, son of the iconic playwright, as proud, defiant Henry Reyna, the 38th Street Gang leader based on real-life Henry Leyvas. As his mythical alter-ego, El Pachuco, Raul Cardona is sheer magic, slithering, cynical and sinister in his charismatic appeal.
Mary Larson’s costumes are pitch-perfect, and the singing is strong. The songs written by Luis Valdez, his brother Daniel Valdez or Lalo Guerrero, considered the “father of Chicano music,” just as Luis is father of Chicano theater. It’s all about family here, onstage and off. A number of the performers are veterans of the first Rep production 15 years ago.
The play is an anthem to the power of the people; one attorney and one indomitable woman organized the movement to subvert a blatant miscarriage of justice and free the wrongfully accused young men. Though the piece provides an imaginative and provocative slice of history, in the end, we come to believe that “El Pachuco — the man, the myth — still lives.”
“Zoot Suit” runs through August 12, at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
©2012 PAT LAUNER