Recently opened productions at the Goodman and at the tiny Writers' Theatre in suburban Glencoe have us revisiting history. In Nixon's Nixon at the Writers' Theatre, we relive the evening of August 7, 1974--the night before the resignation--with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. In Zoot Suit at the Goodman Theatre, we relive not only a chunk of 1940s Los Angeles social and political history, but theater history as well.
Zoot Suit was developed by the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, in 1978. It seems incredible, but in a city with such a large and vital Latino community, LA's leading non-profit theater never had never before tapped either the history of the Barrio or its audience potential. Written by Luis Valdez, founder of El Teatro Campesino, this documentary drama with music changed all that. In retelling the story of a notorious Chicano murder case in 1942--the so-called Sleepy Lagoon Murder--and racially motivated riots in 1943 by U. S. servicemen against zoot suit-wearing Mexican gang members, Valdez celebrated and validated the city's vibrant Mexican culture with an electrifying and entertaining large-cast theatrical event.
A sensation, Zoot Suit launched the career of Edward James Olmos, and ran for over a year in a transfer to the Aquarius Theatre on Sunset Boulevard. But it quickly and dismally failed on Broadway in 1979, possibly because the New York Latino community largely is Puerto Rican and not Mexican. This important and memorable show then disappeared, perhaps regarded as unproducable because of its requirement for Latino actors, or the feeling that it would not appeal to a broad audience (even though the Taper production disproved that).
The Goodman Theatre production, running through July 30, is only the second staging of Zoot Suit since Broadway. Even so, it seems retrograde that the Goodman took so long to come to this show, given the presence in Chicago of a very large Mexican community and three Latino theater companies. It's the project of Cuban-born director Henry Godinez, a Goodman artistic associate and founder of Teatro Vista, one of the three Latino troupes.
Zoot Suit retains all its vigor and theatrical dazzle in the Goodman production. A versatile showman as well as a politician, Valdez has crafted a coloful agit-prop entertainment that uses music, dance, living newspaper techniques, narration, and dramatization to tell its tale of justice denied, bigotry fed by war hysteria, and the eventual bittersweet triumph of truth. One never confuses the good guys and the bad guys in this blatantly--but enjoyably--manipulative work.
Godinez has assembled a fine, large cast of top local Latino and Anglo performers, plus a few choice imports such as Marco Rodriquez as the sly and stylish El Pachuco, the narrator of the work and the embodiment of the spirit of the young Mexican males in LA's 38th Street Gang. Framed by the giant newspaper headlines of Christopher Acebo's set, the large cast seems to dance and strut its way through the show, even when not engaged in the jitterbugs of Randy Duncan's choreography.