An American classic is currently showing in San Juan Bautista, just four hours’ drive north of Santa Barbara. A play with music, Zoot Suit is a construct of fact and fantasy recounting the story of the infamous “zoot suit riots” that took place during World War II when U.S. sailors and Marines attacked any Mexican youth wearing the strange attire. Mexican author Octavio Paz, who once lived in Los Angeles, commented upon the phenomenon of the pachuco, calling him “the extreme to which a Mexican can go.” Playwright Luis Valdez, however, reinterpreted the pachuco “as the first Chicano, neither Mexican nor American.”
During intermission, I commented to Phil Esparza, one of the producers, that my wife and I had seen the first production by El Teatro Campesino 30 years ago at the Mark Taper Forum. “There’s one big difference,” said Esparza. “This is a teenage cast, about the same age as the actual defendants at the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial.” It makes you realize how young they were, and how their lives were ruined by a court system that condemned all “zoot suiters.” The yellow journalistic press of the day aided the persecution by not using the word Mexican, as Mexico was our ally during the war effort.
The original production of this play launched the acting career of Edward James Olmos in his role as El Pachuco, and Michael Uribes does a nice job in reprising it, playing alter ego to Henry Reyna (Adrian Torres). Uribes uses his smooth singing voice in narrating the action. Director Kinan Valdez does a very credible job of moving the large cast of 24 around in the intimate confines of the ETC playhouse. Audiences are treated to rousing dance numbers like the “Marijuana Boogie” and “Chuco’s Suave.” The production’s zoot suits are authentically tailored by “El Pachuco” of Fullerton, California.
Other standouts in the cast included Paul Myrvold as the lawyer who defended the 22 youths accused of murder, and Alika Spencer as Alice Bloomfield, a Jewish activist who spearheaded the appeal process after they were sentenced to prison. Among the younger players, Jessica Marie Wynne is a comely love interest to Henry Reyna, while Hector Manuel Ruelas provides comic relief as Smiley Torres.
The show has been extended through the end of September, so if you want to see a true American classic, head on up to San Juan Bautista and “check out the chucos, ese.”
El Teatro Campesino Playhouse is located at 705 Fourth Street in San Juan Bautista. For tickets, visit elteatrocampesino.com or call (831) 623-2444.