Experiencing the stage production of Zoot Suit nearly 40 years ago was for me an intense introduction to my new home of L.A., exposing its racist history in a docu-drama, presented in a fanciful flash of costumes, song and dance, and story line.
The revival at the Mark Taper Forum now through April 2d doesn’t have the shock of the new for a now native me, as I comment on public radio 97.5 KBU and select websites. Some of the stage contrivances of flash backs, and a narrator have become prosaic production props, the shifting raw open set a familiar construct.
But the play as a penetrating portrait of home town prejudice is still affecting today as ever, and perhaps more so in wake of President Trump’s pronouncements deriding Mexicans and his insulting immigrant edicts.
Reviving a 40 year old play, depicting racist events plaguing Latinos 40 years before, in 1942, and not incidentally 150 years after the Civil War, and is still relevant today, has to say something about our society.
With that as history, to be sure, Zoot Suit, now as then, is a joy to watch, even if in the last row and an imperfect sound system .
Its conception is a wonderful stage conceit, especially given the drift of theatre in the 70s, and stands as a shinning tribute to the memory of the Taper’s then artistic director Gordon Davidson. He is given proper credit in the insightful program notes of Stephen Lavine and Janet Sternburg.
It was Davidson who commissioned the production from Luis Valdez, then a young, fiery Latino dramatist. That the now 75 year old, Valdez directs the revival lends the evening at the Taper a wistful aiur.
As for the production, it time and place is announced by a curtain splashing a Los Angeles Times front page of 1942 . to be sliced open by a giant switch blade knife , through which struts the flamboyant Zoot suited El Paucho, wonderfully played by Demian Bichir.
Indeed, the entire cast is excellent, the song and dance routines exuberant, the dramatic interludes touching, if somewhat cliché and in need of some editing. But then this is a revival, not a adaptation.
Zoot Suit is what it is, relevant to the fractured history of a fractured evolving city, a landmark of theatre production, and a deep bow to Latino talent.
Tickets are tough, but worth the effort, especially if you call L.A. your home.