In the current revival of Luis Valdez’s play Zoot Suit at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum, the iconic El Pachuco character (played by Demian Bichir) admonishes the rebellious character of Henry Reyna, played by Matias Ponce, “don’t try to out-Pachuco me!”
The line comes to mind in evaluating Bichir’s portrayal of the flamboyant and archetypal Chicano social rebel who scared the press and public during the xenophobic 1940s. For those of us who experienced the original 1978 Mark Taper Forum production of the stage play, almost any other depiction of the Pachuco character will fall short. This is not because of Bichir’s performance–by my reckoning he does a sensational, riveting job– but simply because the original creation by Edward James Olmos was so quintessential that any other portrayal can’t help but suffer by comparison. It is almost impossible to separate the man (Bichir as El Pachuco) from the myth (the Olmos portrayal). And in a contest between man and myth, the myth will always win out.
In collaboration with director Luis Valdez, Olmos managed to hone a character unique in American drama (see: http://latinopia.com/latino-theater/latinopia-teatro-luis-valdez-pachuco2/ ) Before the Olmos’ characterization, Chicano and non-Chicano audiences alike knew little about what exactly a Pachuco was. We knew about the headlines of “baby gangsters” and about the Zoot Suit riots of 1943. And for sure we knew about the flamboyant Zoot Suit dress. When I produced my 1972 docu-drama Yo Soy Chicano I recreated the Pachuco era on film, I brought the tando, tacuche, swinging chain, and shiny calcos to life if but for only a cinematic moment. Indeed I couldn’t resist donning the Zoot Suit myself–“It was the secret fantasy of every bato, living in and out of the pachucada to put on the Zoot Suit and play the myth.”
But what was missing was the spirit and soul of the Pachuco, something only that could come about in a full length dramatic production. And that is what Luis Valdez did. He brought the “soul” of the Pachuco to life, complete with the Pachuco’s anger, confusion and flaws but also his fierce independence and heroic, unapologetic self-affirmation; Chicano Yo! And he did this through the portrayal by Edward James Olmos, forever ruining American audiences of the 1978 production by treating us to what is arguably the definitive rendering of this iconic character.
Audiences who have not seen the 1978 production or the 1981 movie version, are, in a sense, fortunate because they can appreciate the current revival without any preconceptions. And this as it should be, the revival is a phenomenal production worthy of appreciation on its own richly-deserved merits. The lead performances whether by a mesmerizing Bichir, newcomers Matias Ponce and Jeanine Mason or veterans Daniel Valdez and Rose Portillo are all outstanding as is the superbly choreographed musical numbers showcasing stellar performances by a multi-ethnic cast of dancers and singers. For an in-depth review of the current revival see: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-zoot-suit-review-20170212-story.html.
But for those of us spoiled by having experienced the original, we can’t help but draw the inevitable comparisons as we watch the current version. Thus, when I saw the revival on opening night, I couldn’t help but recall the original cast members and the roles they played. I couldn’t help but mentally recite El Pachuco’s opening monologue in the voice of Edward James Olmos. A bizarre, awkward and unfair walk down memory lane.
All of this pointing to the fact that, as difficult as it may be, the current Zoot Suit revival deserves to be judged by its own standards and not in comparison to the original 1978 production. And if one does so, one finds the current production eliciting a response reflective of today’s social climes that in many ways exceeds the response evoked in the original production.
No where is this more evident than, at the conclusion of the first act, when the George Shearer character points to what’s at stake in the trial that is railroading Henry Reyna and his young Chicano cohorts to San Quentin. “I have tried my best to defend what is most precious in our American society,” the attorney declares, “a society now at war against the forces of racial intolerance and totalitarian injustice.” The audience response leaves no doubt that today’s public reads into this proclamation the current immigration sweeps and other repressive measures by the Trump administration.
The mark of a great American play, such as anything Eugene O’Neill, Henry Miller or Tennessee Williams might produce, is its longevity, power and sustainability. And that is something one will find in either the current or the original production of Zoot Suit.
Luis Valdez can rest assured that he has created a landmark obra that will be staged and restaged as long as there is an American stage.
– Jesús Salvador Treviño
Copyright 2017 by Jesús Salvador Treviño.