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Review: Cara Mia’s ‘Zoot Suit’

by Jerome Weeks 15 Dec 2014 12:11 PM

Luis Valdez’ landmark Chicano drama finally comes to Texas, thanks to Cara Mia. Race riots, a bizarre, historic murder trial that railroaded 17 innocents — plus, hey, Latin music, dance and defiant flair. What’s not to like? Well … there’s the theater space.


Zoot Suit has finally come to North Texas — in a Cara Mia Theatre production that’s got some muscle, some entertainment. This is not a nostalgic, respectful revival made to polish up your identity politics.

The fact that Luis Valdez’ 1978 drama — about the race riots and the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial which tore apart LA in 1942-’43 — is only now getting a Texas staging is a timely reminder of a few facts.

First, of course, is the play’s pointed relevance. The events it recounts — the scapegoating of minorities by police and prosecutors, the legal struggles and public protests that erupted over them — are seventy years old yet could be read off a TV news teleprompter today.

More immediately, that we’re seeing this play only now reminds us of the need for theater companies like Cara Mia. That is, if we ever hope to see el teatro chicano shows like Zoot Suit. The larger, mainstream-white theater companies in Texas have never found the resources or the will to stage the most influential Chicano play in American history, the first to be produced on Broadway, the first to be made into a Hollywood film. None of that provided enough motivation.

It also shows how far Cara Mia has come, how executive producer David Lozano has been building his theater into an established company (last season’s Dreamers won a development grant from TACA, this season Cara Mia expanded to five shows). Lozano has made it clear Valdez’ California troupe, El Teatro Campesino, is a chief inspiration for him, so producing Zoot Suit was only a matter of time. But a major reason our leading companies haven’t staged Zoot Suit is simple: It’s not merely an aggressive, sprawling, multilingual, overtly political drama about racism, violence, Chicano immigration, barrio culture and the outrages often built into American media and justice.

Zoot Suit is all that, and it requires a 23-member cast to boot, plus a band. That’s right. For all its Brechtian, agit-prop swagger, Zoot Suit is a musical comedy. One of Valdez’ explicit inspirations — aside from Brecht’s own Threepenny Opera — was West Side Story, with its Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. Zoot Suit features dance numbers by Lalo Guerrero, often called “the father of Chicano music,” although his songs weren’t written expressly for this show. They’re actually popular “pachuco” songs from the period that Valdez has revived.


Got your back: Rodney Garza and Chris Ramirez in Cara Mia’s Zoot Suit. All photos: Adolfo Cantú-Villarreal

So imagine smaller companies like Kitchen Dog or Amphibian Productions putting on a full-scale musical with all the dancers, choreographer, musicians and extra rehearsals that entails. Forget the historical and cultural weight of Zoot Suit; the show is an ambitious project for Cara Mia simply on practical levels: It’s the company’s first musical.

Does Cara Mia pull it off? Raggedly — though with some fine performances and some sharp musical direction by S-Ankh Rasa.

But also with one crippling failing we’ll come to.

Co-director Rodney Garza plays El Pachuco — the onstage narrator and “spirit” of the zoot suiters. He lends the show the craggy-faced presence and authority it needs. Earlier this year, Garza played a weathered, prison-lifer in the Dallas Theater Center’s fine production of Oedipus el Rey. His character here embodies Valdez’ argument that the zoot suiters were not wild-styling young hoodlums on a rampage. They were an expression of bedrock Chicano style and cultural resistance.

For Henry Reyna, the young main character, El Pachuco is the model for what it means to be a man, to be a defiant Latino male. Actor Chris Ramirez has Henry’s troubled decency — he’s best in the prison scenes, when Henry is beset by doubts. He’s less convincing as someone who might seriously become a stone-cold gang leader. We have to believe that’s a real option — that being falsely charged with murder, unjustly convicted and thrown into solitary confinement would turn this baby-faced Henry violent. Not ‘protest sign’ violent but bitter, vengefully, brutally violent.

A criticism leveled against Valdez has been that his play envisions the pachucos of the ’40s as the precursors of the United Farmworkers protest movement of the ’60s — even though the pachucos didn’t have anything like that kind of political consciousness or racial unity. Zoot Suit certainly makes this link — insofar as Henry’s case becomes a landmark reversal of a prejudiced proceeding, a case that fomented Latino community outcries.

But Zoot Suit is more clear-eyed, more nuanced than a protest rally. Valdez plainly takes one large step away from El Pachuco as Our Working-Class Hero. Henry’s personal turning point comes in solitary confinement in San Quentin when he struggles against a mental breakdown. He confronts El Pachuco, calling him out as his best friend and his worst enemy. The pachuco’s machismo may provide Chicanos with strutting flair, but his fear of any sign of masculine weakness, his inclination for dramatic style and arrogant independence over collective action (spitting variations of “I don’t need your help” echo through the play) inspire Henry’s own, more self-destructive impulses. The play’s turning point comes when he gives up those impulses, when he turns away from El Pachuco as his model of action.

While Ramirez and Garza create tangible, realistic portrayals, Justin Locklear brings a level of welcome, almost absurdist humor. Locklear plays both a journalist and the prosecuting attorney. Satiric caricatures are very much in Valdez’ comic arsenal, and with his angular, skinny-legged, deadpan performance, Locklear becomes a young John Cleese — from the Ministry of Silly Walks — as he makes the Sleepy Lagoon trial into a sham of a mockery of travesty of a kangaroo court. It’s yet another instance of the talented Locklear taking a small role and making it pop.

But here’s the major failure: These performances — actually, much of Cara Mia’s production of Zoot Suit, period — are seriously dulled by the Latino Cultural Center’s performance space. The center is a handsome piece of colorful architecture (by the acclaimed Mexico City firm Legorreta + Legoretta) with a wretched stage for live theater. It’s built like a high school auditorium — too wide, too distant from the audience and with all the dead-air ambience of a corporate seminar room.

An exaggeration? The LCC’s theater holds only 300 seats — that’s smaller than Theatre 3 — so it should feel relatively intimate. Yet you can be seated only a few rows back and feel the actors are so far away they’ve left the building. Even in non-musical productions, performers have to be miked to be heard. And when they are amplified, they can sound as though they’re shouting in the Carlsbad Cavern. This is a particular problem for Zoot Suit because Valdez’ dialogue constantly switches between English and Spanish (and the kind of pachuco-period slang that even Spanish-speakers may find difficult). It’s not just my inadequate knowledge of Spanish that misses certain jokes or nuances. Anyone with ears will have trouble. In Zoot Suit, when the chorus starts chanting newspaper headlines — in English — they could be yelling chemical formulas. In Urdu.

The Cultural Center’s layout is more conducive to music and dance performances, when sitting back from the performers to get the entire sweep of what’s on stage can be advantageous — and when an audio mix doesn’t have to accommodate drums, electric instruments, singing voices, choruses and solo speakers. The simple fact is that  several of the city’s neighborhood Cultural Centers — the Latino, the Bath House, Oak Cliff — have weak performance facilities.

Obviously, as an iconic gathering place for Dallas’ Hispanic community, the Latino Cultural Center is a logical, symbolic home for Cara Mia. And it has technical advantages as well, particularly with the kind of sophisticated equipment not typically available to a small company. It’s also more attractive, with more resources (dressing rooms, offices) than any theater space such a company might finance or finagle on its own.


Rodney Garza as El Pachuco.

But in terms of what Cara Mia puts on stage — where the rubber meets the art — the Latino Cultural Center is a hindrance, a space to be defeated. There are local examples of performance spaces that should make for limited, dreadful, live experiences — the Undermain’s chief among them — yet over the years, theater artists have managed to make them not just work but work to their advantage. The Undermain’s raw-concrete, low-ceiling, warehouse space lent the company a large shot of instant, avant-garde, big-city-bohemian cachet. But the company can also change its space, re-arrange the stage. And it has spent years and a lot of fundraising drives to upgrade that bunker with decent accommodations.

Cara Mia can’t do any of that with the city-owned Cultural Center. So whatever high-profile-in-the-community boost the center has lent Cara Mia, it’s offset by this stark fact: If Cara Mia ever wants to showcase its best artistry, if it wants to grow, to control its own destiny, to be fully professional, then it’s going to have to abandon the LCC. That auditorium is holding the company back. Unless some directing genius figures a way to make that drama-killing dead zone work, Cara Mia’s shows will always be seriously hampered there.

I don’t make such a recommendation lightly. Finding a new home will be a life-changing endeavor for the company, and Dallas’ real estate values and its urban layout only make finding such a home tougher. But Lozano clearly knows this needs to be done: This season’s opening show, Teotl, a collaboration with Prism Company, was staged in an old warehouse at Trinity Groves in West Dallas. Beyond a one-shot show like that, though, there’s a dearth of decent small performance spaces available in town. Such a hall would have to be affordable, and in Dallas that generally means it’ll be inconvenient, tucked away somewhere, outside the city center because that’s too costly for anyone other than millionaires or major, long-established art institutions. Housing prices are shooting past interstellar and headed for frenzied. Three-four times a week, I get unsolicited, excited offers in the mail begging to buy my aging, one-bathroom, wood-frame home. How’s a Latino theater company going to compete for space in such a bull market?

In the short term, the good news is that Cara Mia is a member of the Elevator Project, one of six small companies staging productions in the sixth-floor space at the Wyly Theater. The Project is designed to keep that theater space busy and rented but also to give these companies a shot at a top-notch facility in the Arts District. In April, Cara Mia will present former Dallas playwright Octavio Solis’ Lydia there.

But the Elevator Project is not a permanent arrangement. Too bad. The Arts District needs the extra activity, the illusion of actual nightlife. And for a company like Cara Mia, the project offers a chance at some increased public exposure, a chance to go on the road and show what they can do — when they’re not stuck in their parents’ basement.