‘Zoot Suit,’ a classic play about discrimination, finds renewed purpose

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: A landmark play about the struggles of Mexican-Americans gets an acclaimed revival, one that speaks to the times we live in.

Jeffrey Brown has the story from Los Angeles.

JEFFREY BROWN: It is a deeply American story, a Mexican-American story, “Zoot Suit” the play, set in Los Angeles in the 1940s, amid rampant discrimination, a real-life murder trial and the so-called Zoot Suit Riots.

ACTOR: The grand jury has just indicted you all for the same identical crime, not just you four, the whole entire 38th Street Gang.

JEFFREY BROWN: And “Zoot Suit,” the cultural phenomenon, reaching from its premiere in 1978 at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum, to Broadway, to a 1981 film, and now, 38 years later, to a revival at the theater where it began.

Its writer and director, then and now, is Luis Valdez.

LUIS VALDEZ, Writer/Director, “Zoot Suit”: I believe in entertainment. I love entertainment, you know? But I love it with a purpose. I want people to come out of here thinking about what they saw, and perhaps reassessing what’s happening in their own lives with their families.

And, more than anything I hope that people leave here with hope and inspiration.

JEFFREY BROWN: Valdez received a National Medal of the Arts from President Obama in 2015 for — quote — “illuminating the human spirit in the face of social injustice.”

He spent his early years in a family of migrant workers.

Is it correct what I read, that you were 6 when you first discovered your love of theater in a camp?

LUIS VALDEZ: In a camp, labor camp, I got hooked, yes. I auditioned, and I won my first role. Unfortunately, the week of the show, we were evicted from the labor camp where we were staying, and I was never in the play. So, that left a big gap, a big hole in my chest, you know?

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s an early lesson in theater and in politics, right?

LUIS VALDEZ: Well, exactly, the desire to do theater, and anger, residual anger, because we had been evicted. So, 20 years later, roughly, I went to Cesar Chavez and pitched him an idea of theater of, by and for farmworkers.

JEFFREY BROWN: That was the beginning of El Teatro Campesino, a bilingual theater group of farmworkers who performed short plays for other migrants, often on flatbed trucks in the middle of California fields.

Valdez continued to write and produce larger works as well, becoming known as the godfather of Chicano theater. In 1977, he was asked to create a new production for the Mark Taper Forum. He chose the story of Pachuco culture, Mexican-American urban street life, and a sensational murder trial from the 1940s in which more than a dozen Chicano gang youth were convicted, followed by riots.

Valdez used actual transcripts and news headlines from the era. The original production helped launch the career of many Chicano actors, including Edward James Olmos. Luis’ brother Daniel Valdez and Rose Portillo were also part of the original cast, playing the young lovers at the heart of the drama.

DANIEL VALDEZ, Actor: It was ahead of its time. Very few Chicanos were really in the acting business. So, for us, you know, so young a cast that was coming together, we were people off the street making our first mark on the industry.

But seeing the reactions of the audience and seeing what the audience responded to, because “Zoot Suit” is much more than a play — it’s an event. In many ways, it was a spiritual experience in that sense.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was also putting people on the stage and a story on the stage that most audiences haven’t seen.

DANIEL VALDEZ: Exactly.

ROSE PORTILLO, Actress: They hadn’t seen characters like this. They’d not seen Hispanic, Latino, Chicano, whatever you want to call us, Mexican-Americans, on the stage.

And it was a moment where several things were going on. One is, you don’t always know what you’re missing until you see it. So, to suddenly see this play and the stage filled with people that looked like us was, oh, my God, I didn’t realize I was missing that, and so that sense of pride and I belong here, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: All these years later, they still belong, this time playing the parents of the young protagonist, Henry Reyna. I asked how it felt to return.

ROSE PORTILLO: When I walked into the audition room, and it was the same room that I had walked into 38 years ago, and this person was also at the other end of the table, and Luis was on the other end of the table.

JEFFREY BROWN: Looking just the same as all those years ago?

ROSE PORTILLO: Exactly the same. We had not changed at all.

And I just took a breath, and I put my bag down, and I went, a moment, please. This is so surreal.

DANIEL VALDEZ: Yes. I would say it’s Groundhog Day.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Now a new generation of younger Latino actors has taken the stage, joined by one of Mexico’s leading film and TV stars, Demian Bichir, who fell in love with the “Zoot Suit” story as a teenager.

DEMIAN BICHIR, Actor: I wanted to be in it. It was my idea. And I pursued it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. You heard about it and you said, I have to do this?

DEMIAN BICHIR: That’s pretty much the way it happened.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bichir plays what would become the most iconic role in “Zoot Suit,” El Pachuco, a kind of trickster spirit figure who hovers around and over the action, connecting the streets of 1940s Los Angeles to a mythological and spiritual past.

DEMIAN BICHIR: He’s the story of us. He is every Mexican from the beginning of times up until now. He’s a devilish presence, he’s an angel, he’s your best adviser, your best friend and your worst enemy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Taking on the role, says Bichir, was irresistible. But, like others we spoke to, he had another reason he wanted to take part in the new “Zoot Suit”: for moments like this one, from a defense lawyer in the 1940s trial.

DEMIAN BICHIR: I have tried to defend what is most precious to our American society, a society that is now at war against the forces of racial intolerance.

A big part of me making that decision was how important this play is for the times that we live in. This is a classic. It’s a masterpiece of American playwriting. It’s about discrimination and it’s about we Mexicans being a target for so many years.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Zoot Suit” plays through March 26.

From the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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