By Pat Launer
Drape-shape jacket and pants, dangling chains and wide-brim hats. Gangs and violence. Hot Latin jazz and a sizzling California court case. A theatrical masterwork and a local anniversary. An important Jewish connection to the real-life story. And a young Jewish participant in the revival.
It all comes together in the brand new production of an American classic, “Zoot Suit,” the most significant work of Latino drama in American theater. The show launches the 37th anniversary of the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
Patriotism, racism and riots in L.A.
So what exactly is a zoot suit? The style was initially associated with African American jazz culture, but was co-opted by a generation of Mexican-American kids who made it their own in the 1940s.
The oversized ensemble was both outrageous in appearance and defiant in spirit. This rebellious attitude asserted itself at a time when fabric was being rationed for the war effort. The amount of material and tailoring required for the huge jacket and high-waisted, ‘draped’ pants made the outfit a luxury item, which was frowned upon. The large hat often sported a feather. The hair was worn in a ‘ducktail.’ A long chain hung down the billowing pants leg which was cinched at the ankle. Gang membership was often part of the ‘pachuco’ package.
In the summer of 1943, Los Angeles erupted in violence. Teeming with military personnel, the city was on the frontlines of the war in the Pacific — and the war against Mexican-American pachuco gangs at home. Though they were disproportionately represented in the armed forces, Mexican Americans were considered, by virtue of their flamboyant dress, unpatriotic.
Thanks to lurid, yellow journalistic news reports and an overly aggressive police department, people began to believe Mexican-American youths were predisposed to criminality.
The Zoot Suit Riots that ensued were a response to the notorious 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder, which involved the slaying of a young Latino man in a barrio near Los Angeles, at a reservoir called Sleepy Lagoon. His death led to the indictment of a local Chicano gang and the infamous Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, a kangaroo court fanned by hysteria. When the guilty verdict was announced, the Zoot Suit Riots began.
The violence between servicemen and pachucos escalated, and after several days, more than 150 people had been injured and police had arrested more than 500 Mexican Americans.
The local press lauded the attacks by the servicemen, describing the assaults as having a “cleansing effect,” ridding L.A. of “miscreants” and “hoodlums.” An investigative committee, appointed by the State Department, determined racism to be a central cause of the riots, adding that it was “an aggravating practice (of the media) to link the phrase ‘zoot suit’ with the report of a crime.”
Zoot Suit: the play, the movie
All this formed the backdrop and inspiration for Luis Valdez, the “father of Chicano theater,” a hugely influential playwright, screenwriter/director, activist (he worked with César Chavez) and founder of the El Teatro Campesino, the “farmworkers theater” that set the stage for Latino and Chicano theater companies nationwide.
“Zoot Suit,” a play with music and dance, combines fiction and fact, fantasy and imagination.
The play premiered in Los Angeles in 1978, and the next year became the first Chicano play ever to appear on Broadway. Valdez was Broadway’s first Latino/Chicano director; he also wrote and directed the film “Zoot Suit,” which debuted in 1981.
Valdez created the iconic image of “El Pachuco,” a super-cool mythical figure who acts as Greek chorus to the action and serves as the main character’s conscience. (In the play and film, Valdez’s brother, actor Danny Valdez, played the lead role, and Edward James Olmos left an indelible mark as El Pachuco).
Henry Reyna (inspired by real-life defendant Henry Leyvas) is at the center of the story. On a celebratory last night before beginning his Naval service, he and his gang are accused of the murder of a rival gang member. His entire group is thrown in jail for a murder they did not commit. As the case proceeds in court, the voices of the people and the media are presented in varied and imaginative ways.
What’s a nice Jewish girl doing in a place like this?
Enter Alice Greenfield, born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, in 1917. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, she spoke only Yiddish until she attended school. Early in her life, her family moved to Los Angeles. Later, unable to afford a college education, she dropped out and took a series of menial jobs, but she was repeatedly drawn to progressive political causes.
In 1942, attorney George Shibley hired Greenfield (who had married blacklisted poet Thomas McGrath) to assist in his defense of the 22 Mexican-American youths, age 17-21, accused in the Sleepy Lagoon murder, the largest mass trial in California history.
At the culmination of the 13-week trial, the all-white jury convicted 12 of the defendants of first- or second-degree murder. All were sent to San Quentin Prison. McGrath became the executive secretary of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, whose supporters included high-profile names like Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Nat King Cole and Anthony Quinn.
McGrath took her position seriously; she published a newsletter, spoke in public about the case and raised money to support an appeal of the convictions. She frequently wrote to and visited the Sleepy Lagoon defendants, with whom she maintained contact over time.
In 1944, the Court of Appeals overturned the convictions, finding insufficient evidence of guilt and reviling the bias of the trial court judge and the denial of the defendants’ right to counsel.
McGrath remained active in progressive causes for more than 50 years, but she said the Sleepy Lagoon appeal was “the most important event in my life. If I had never done anything since … my involvement in Sleepy Lagoon would justify my existence.”
Playwright Valdez considered McGrath “one of the heroines of the 20th century. In Los Angeles, I can’t think of many people who surpass her influence.”
And so, he made her a significant character in “Zoot Suit,” under the name of Alice Bloomfield (played by Tyne Daly in the film).
The play … and the new production
In 1997, the San Diego Rep staged the first production of “Zoot Suit” in 16 years. On opening night, most of the Valdez family was in attendance, as was the family of Henry Leyvas (the real-life protagonist) and the Jewish heroine Alice Greenfield (who died in 2009).
In that first San Diego production, Luis’ brother, Danny Valdez, who originated the role of Henry, served as artist-in-residence. Now, it’s time for the next generation. The Rep’s artist-in-residence is Herbert Siguenza, co-founder of the hilarious and highly regarded Chicano comedy troupe, Culture Clash; he portrays the press and the prosecutor. And Valdez’s son, Lakin, steps into the role of Henry.
“In my opinion,” says Rep co-founder and artistic director Sam Woodhouse, “the play is an American classic, the Latino ‘Death of a Salesman,’ if you will. Asking why we’re doing it again is like asking an opera company why they’re doing ‘La Bohème.’”
The scale of the work demands a huge cast — a daunting proposition to most theater companies. Which brings us to the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA). This is the third partnership of SCPA and the Rep; the first two highly successful ventures were “Hairspray” and “The Who’s Tommy.” The partnership allows the Rep to remain, as Woodhouse boasts, “the only theater in history to do this show with a live orchestra. And that includes Broadway!”
All nine members of the band are SCPA students. There are also a dozen high schoolers, ages 14-19, in the 33-member cast.
“This show is an exact manifestation of our mission,” Woodhouse explains. “It’s a muscular story that addresses inclusion, diversity and issues important to Californians. The central question for Henry is, ‘How do I respond to this oppression and discrimination?’
“The play is always relevant, because those issues never seem to go away. But it’s not about immigration; these were Mexican Americans, born here. This story is about racism, and it was happening at the same time as the horrors of World War II in Europe and our own Japanese internment camps at home. It’s all about the fear of the Other. And in this election year, the country is once again discussing who is or isn’t or has the right to be called American. This show provides a rare and terrific educational opportunity.”
To make it all happen, Woodhouse chose ace director Kirsten Brandt, a UCSD alum and former artistic director of the edgy, local Sledgehammer Theatre.
“She’s a very talented director,” says Woodhouse, “especially experienced with large shows.”
Brandt lives close to El Teatro Campesino and works with Luis’ son, Kinan Valdez, at UC Santa Cruz. Her husband, scenic and lighting designer David Lee Cuthbert, who’s chair of theatre arts at UC Santa Cruz, designed the show at the Rep in 1997 and will be doing the sets, lights and projections this time around.
“It’s so incredibly timely,” Brandt says, “with all of the tense race issues we’re dealing with nationally, and social injustice, with gay marriage and racial profiling. The play is not just what happened to these Latino kids. It’s what continues to happen. It’s a very political piece and also very entertaining.”
Alice … and a local Jewish connection
Brandt finds Alice Greenfield to be a fascinating character, especially since there’s an Alice Greenfield in her own family, which has some Jewish strains.
“We actually don’t find out that Alice is Jewish until the second act, when she says, ‘Maybe because I’m Jewish I understand the injustice and understand what it is to be marginalized.’”
Jo Anne Glover, an outstanding local actor who plays Alice, says “I can’t help but think that how she was, so fierce in her determination to help those who are disrespected or mistreated by the mainstream, comes from her having been Jewish during this wartime era, when there was so much persecution of her culture. She had amazing strength and boundless energy for helping the pachucos in their struggle and trying to keep their spirits up. She was a beacon of positive energy in this awful situation.”
There’s a local Jewish link in this production, too: Danielle Levin, a charming, articulate, enthusiastic and grateful 18-year-old who plays a member of the rival Downey gang. A recent graduate of SCPA, she got her start with J*Company (“my second family”), starting at age 7 and appearing in 20 shows, including the concentration camp children’s opera, “Brundibar.” She also appeared in Todd Salovey’s “Blessings of a Broken Heart.”
In the fall, she’s heading off to PCPA (the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, in Santa Maria).
“For me, it’s do theater or don’t do anything,” she says.
She’s been in all three of the Rep/SCPA partnership productions.
It’s been a long and challenging road for Levin, who, 11 days after her birth, was taken in by a Jewish woman as a foster child and adopted at age 2. Her biological mother was Guamanian and French Canadian, her father Mexican and Irish; both were addicts who were “in and out of jail.”
But her adoptive mother gave her a strong Jewish upbringing.
“I love what Judaism teaches,” Levin says, “and I bring that into everything I do.”
She brings her whole background to “Zoot Suit.”
“It’s a show about racism in our country. I’m Jewish, Mexican, Irish — all races that have been persecuted. It’s been a huge learning experience for me.”
The play, says director Brandt, “is, among so many other things, about coming of age, and how adults try to squelch the rebelliousness of youth. The injustice of the trial itself hurts the very core of your being.”
But it’s a joyous production, too, Woodhouse is quick to point out. “Especially the fabulous Latin dance — rumba, mambo, paso doble and more.
“It’s a universal story,” Woodhouse concludes, “and a local story, based on true events. Its issues speak profoundly today to Californians of any ethnicity.”
• “Zoot Suit” runs through Aug. 12 at The San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza. Performances are Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. (additional performances: 2 p.m. Saturday, July 28 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 5). Tickets are $35-58, with discounts for students, seniors and military. For tickets, call (619) 544-1000 or visit www.sdrep.org.