UCSD alumni tackle gritty, swinging tale of ‘Zoot Suit Riots’
By Pat Sherman
Two UC San Diego theater graduates return to town this month for San Diego Repertory Theatre’s revival of “Zoot Suit,” the fictionalized retelling of the social injustice that led to 1943’s explosive “Zoot Suit Riots.”
“I really feel that this is the Chicano play, the Latino play,” said director Kirsten Brandt, former director of San Diego’s Sledgehammer Theatre, who currently teaches at UC Santa Cruz.
The play is based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the ensuing riots, which erupted in Los Angeles when military servicemen attacked Mexican-American youths, inciting similar attacks across the country.
While conducting research for the play, Brandt said she was shocked to learn how much more egregious the historical events were.
“Some of the stuff in the play that I thought was an exaggeration is actually tempered,” said Brandt, who studied at UCSD with Jorge Huerta, considered the leading authority on contemporary Chicano theatre. “The misconduct that happened during the trials is even worse than I could have imagined.”
Fueled in part by the murder and in part by media hysteria over pachucos — a subculture of Latino youth that dressed in elaborate “zoot suits” — the Los Angeles police rounded up 600 Latinos on suspicion of various crimes, with 175 eventually being held in custody. The murder was never solved.
Brandt said non-Latinos on the West Coast were apprehensive about the sartorial statement made by Mexican-Americans during the 1940s.
“The zoot suit itself was considered a little ostentatious because of the amount of material you need to make a suit,” she said. “We were at a time of war and rationing, just coming out of the Depression. Here’s this rebellious nature in the form of this beautiful armor that these young men were wearing.”
While penning the script, which debuted in 1979 as Broadway’s first Chicano play, playwright Luis Valdez pored over hundreds of pages of transcripts from the trial.
“The guys on trail were not allowed to change their clothes, they were not allowed to get haircuts,” Brandt said. “They were being shown … before the jury as these dirty, messy young men — very threatening. The defense attorney cited over 100 moments of misconduct from the bench when it came to taking away civil liberties from the kids.”
Some of the young men were found guilty of first- and second-degree murder and sent to San Quentin State Prison. It took a year for their appeal and release.
As racial tensions simmer on stage, equally hot music and choreography by Javier Velasco move “Zoot Suit” along.
The score, composed by Daniel Valdez and Lalo Guerrero (considered the “father of Chicano music”), is performed live by a jazz band from San Diego’s School of Creative and Performing Arts, blending Latin jazz and big band-era standards.
“There’s a story happening in every dance number and everything is socially relevant to the piece,” Brandt said.
Point Loma High School graduate Raul Cardona, who appeared in San Diego Rep’s 1997 production of “Zoot Suit,” returns to tackle the lead role of El Pachuco, donning a flashy long coat, baggy pants, long chain, thick-soled shoes, pork pie hat and feather.
“There are so many aspects of this play that are incredibly important — just from the (historical) standpoint of trying to change the way law was practiced in America,” said Cardona, who after leaving San Diego went on to work with El Teatro Campesino, a Latino theater company based in the historic Mission San Juan Bautista. “It’s an exploration of how we in society have gotten into the practice of ostracizing, of scapegoating.”
Cardona recalled seeing photographs of his grandfather donning the dress of the Pachuco, around the time he came to the United States as part of the Bracero Program, which allowed for the temporary importation of Mexican farm laborers.
Though his grandfather came to see him perform in several productions before his death, Cardona never knew that he was once involved in theater, producing nighttime pastorelas, or Christian morality plays, in his cornfield in Mexico.
“I wish I could have gone to him and had him as a resource, because that would have been incredible,” Cardona said.