In 1978, the late Gordon Davidson presented El Teatro Campesino’s prescient multimedia drama Zoot Suit, first at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum and then at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre, where it landed as Broadway’s first Chicano show. Riffing on a notorious 1942 murder, the play (and subsequent film) launched the career of a charismatic young actor named Edward James Olmos and focused a hard-won spotlight on the writer and director Luis Valdez, and his seminal troupe.
Sleepy Lagoon was a Lover’s Lane area where Mexican-American youth would hang out. On the morning of August 2, 1942, José Díaz was found wounded and unconscious in the road. He eventually died. The LAPD rounded up 17 members of the 38th Street Gang, all pachucos, slang for the young men draped in zoot suits, with their duster-length jackets, high-waisted trousers and the accompanying long pocket-watch chains and wide-brimmed hats. The sensational case sparked riots; after headline-making trials, all 17 ended up in prison, many of them in San Quentin, though the convictions eventually were overturned.
In LA, the show was greeted with critical and audience rapture; in New York the response was typical of Gotham’s nose-in-the-air attitude toward imports from the Other Coast. I was in the minority; writing in a local Manhattan newspaper, I said that this play about the murder and the riots that followed, “arrived with style and swagger in a tale of urban alienation and violence that’s as lyrically imagined as West Side Story. And it achieves its similar transcendence by making us empathic witnesses to a subject rarely depicted onstage. Visually arresting and surging with electricity, Zoot Suit is a landmark.”
What had been memorable and startling in Los Angeles proved elusive in New York: Zoot Suit shuttered after just 41 performances.
Perhaps the times have caught up with the show. A revival, again staged by the indomitable Valdez, opened Sunday again at the Taper, this time with Demian Bichir in the central role of El Pachuco, a spectral figure who represents the defiant soul of Mexican-American culture, egging on the play’s main character, Henry Reyna (played by Matias Ponce), urging him to lay claim to his cultural spirit.
“What makes this revival of Zoot Suit especially urgent now is the way its story speaks so directly to the current political moment,” Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty writes in today’s paper, “when fundamental constitutional values are being tested and law enforcement and racial justice appear to be at loggerheads.”
A few days ago, I spoke with Bichir about taking on this iconic stage role at a time when his own currency in the film world is on the rise. In 2013, he received an Oscar nomination for A Better Life. Since then, he’s been seen in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, FX’s The Bridge, Showtime’s Weeds and as Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s Che.
But Bichir’s roots are in the theater, beginning in Mexico City, where he grew up performing with the young company at the Gran Teatro Nacional, and as recently as the Geffen Playhouse production of Robert Schenkkan’s By The Waters Of Babylon.
“Bichir makes a snake-like El Pachuco, tempting Henry into rash actions and filling his head with doubts,” McNulty wrote. It’s a physical performance [of a character who is] meant to skulk and Bichir does so with sinewy style.”
The opportunity to work with Valdez, Bichir said, was a key reason he took on the role, which he calls the most challenging of his career.
“You break stereotypes by bringing humanity to a part, whether you’re playing a gardener or the director of the FBI office in New York. I believe in characters who are human.”
“One of the reasons I pursued this character and opportunity was to meet with Luis and offer my services,” Bichir said to me, speaking via telephone as he was driving downtown to the Taper. “This is a much-needed play that still feels so vital – we’re still talking about it 40 years later.
“Luis is without a doubt one of the great American playwrights, and this is a classic American play,” he continued. “He’s not only a fantastic writer, but a brilliant director and a very savvy man whose wisdom goes beyond his work.”
I asked him to explain what he meant by that.
“He knows what he wants from every line,” the actor responded, “but also in terms of life and Mexican-American background – being directed by him you will not only become the best of your potential but you will learn a lot. About yourself, about the culture.” When I saw Zoot Suit in New York, the Playbill included a glossary of terms used in the show. It turns out it wasn’t only for non-Latinos.
“I was learning about the anthropology of some of the words we’ve been using for decades,” Bichir said. “Pachuco has his own personal style, different from where I grew up as a Mexican. Now, I’ve spent half my life in this city. You break stereotypes by bringing humanity to a part, whether you’re playing a gardener or the director of the FBI office in New York. I believe in characters who are human, who are fantastically beautiful human beings or terrible. It’s about universality.”
Bichir recently made his feature directing debut with Un Cuento de Circo & A Love Song, and will be seen in Low Riders and Alien: Covenant. Growing up, he said, he had “two types of idols: the Mexican actors including Hector Bonilla and Pedro Infante, along with the Hollywood stars who came of age in the 1970s – Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Gene Hackman, among those he named.
Nevertheless, it’s to the theater he returns – like Pacino himself – for nourishment. “Working on the stage is more than a gift, a joy,” he said, “but also a need – a necessity for my well-being.” He linked that necessity to Zoot Suit as well, and the times in which this revival is unfolding.
“This is a slap in the face of fascism, of racism, of stupidity,” he said, as defiantly as anything I could recall from the mouth, long ago, of El Pachuco. “I believe on the power of art to start revolutions.”
(Zoot Suit runs through March 26 at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum.)