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“Zoot Suit” is Back: a window on a forgotten past returns to the Taper

The famed opening moment of "Zoot Suit" - the first professionally produced Chicano play - in its revival at the Mark Taper Forum

The famed opening moment of “Zoot Suit” – the first professionally produced Chicano play – in its revival at the Mark Taper Forum

“Zoot Suit” is now extended until March 2, when it absolutely must close.

The return of Luis Valdez’s groundbreaking musical “Zoot Suit” to the Mark Taper Forum is less of a theatrical milestone than it is a major cultural event. Centered on the actual events revolving around the Sleepy Lagoon Murder and the Zoot Suit Riots – both “forgotten” parts of Los Angeles’ World War II history until this show opened in 1978 – the tale celebrates the culture of Mexican-American Los Angeles during that repressive time with a gravelly pride.

Still, one must stand back from the importance of the vehicle to also examine the production itself. Directed as before by its creator, Luis Valdez has worked to keep it true to the original in many strategic ways, from the carved newspaper opening to the iconic pose of El Pachuco – the symbol of Chicano masculinity which has remained central in Los Angeles’ Latino consciousness.

The blend of culture and language is also still central. Interestingly, this has always included a mixture of languages: Spanish, local slang, and English. For those who are familiar with all of these, and many Angelinos are, there is an immediate connection. For those who are less familiar, there may be a certain disconnect but also a chance to bump up against a vibrant part of the L.A. community in a most enthusiastic way. When the show was first produced, the program included a glossary of terms for the uninitiate. That is missing this time, but most of the audience may not need it.

Told through a combination of fact, fantasy and music, the story is elemental Los Angeles. During the period of World War II, a series of events led to the arrest of over 100 Mexican-American young men for the death of a single man near a reservoir euphemistically called Sleepy Lagoon. Their trial was less about a single murder and more about a condemnation of an entire people and an entire lifestyle, and is now well documented as a gross miscarriage of justice. The fight to defend the young men, and then to overturn their convictions, provides a backdrop for a love letter to a way of being and an innate toughness which carried a people through this very difficult time.

The cast divides into those playing the historical figures of the story, and those representing an elemental force which stood up against the inequities of the time period. Matias Ponce is Henry Reyna, the leader of a “boy gang” whose entire crew ends up arrested for something they didn’t do. As such, Ponce underscores Henry’s resolute sense of self, his sense of family, and his ability to keep himself together in the midst of a nearly hopeless situation. Standouts among Henry’s fellow zoot suiters include Raul Cardona exuding a particular maturity as the married father “Smiley,” Oscar Camacho as the impulsive Joey, and Caleb Foote as Tommy, the non-Hispanic member of the gang.

Melinna Bobadilla radiates with an innate innocence as Henry’s girlfriend, while Stephani Candelaria and Andres Ortiz make Henry’s siblings a study in contrasts. Brian Abraham gives a gravitas to the lawyer whose ardent defense of his young and mistreated clients seems as potent today as it does in its historical context. Tiffany Dupont, as the woman who coordinates communications between the legal team, walks that fine line for any woman of the period between femininity and official status.

But surrounding all of this, and more, are the more symbolic figures, and their presence ends up defining much of the action. Fiona Cheung, Holly Hyman and Mariela Arteaga form the singing Pachuca Trio, a multi-ethnic representation of L.A. itself. And, of course, there is Demian Bichir as El Pachuco, that central narrator and representation of the larger theme of the piece. Bichir has the moves and style down pat, though the directorial choice to have him speak in a gravelly voice (except when imitating others) has the side effect of making him often very difficult to understand. This is a pity as he is the glue holding the show and this production together.

The music, an eclectic mix of big band hits of the era with original songs and instrumentals by Lalo Guerrero and Daniel Valdez, and the upbeat swing choreography of Maria Torres add to the sometimes frenetic tone of the show, which proves energetic from start to finish. One should not really call this a musical, in the classic sense, in that there are no soulful songster moments but rather an undercurrent which creates the atmosphere of time and place.

All of which is not news to those who remember “Zoot Suit” from its first incarnation 39 years ago. For a new generation, reviving this story – which is simplified history, to some extent, but important nonetheless – puts modern struggles of identity and inclusion into context more startlingly than one would wish. However, despite a stated sense that this piece of theater is intended to speak to the larger issue of the Hispanic/Latino story in the US, it remains ultimately a story of Los Angeles and the particular consciousness of a large portion of our community. There it is received as golden, but one wonders how well that translates to the larger sphere.

What: “Zoot Suit” When: now extended through March 28, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 S. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $109 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Music as Brotherhood: “Bars and Measures” at Boston Court

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There are several layers to Idris Goodwin’s play “Bars and Measures”, just opened at The Theatre at Boston Court as part of a “rolling premiere.” Several themes relating to identity, race, faith and cultural attributes float together in a kind of orchestrated wrangle between brothers over what truth is, what art is, what justice is, and what limits family loyalty might have. The play proves intense, and leaves one with a lot to chew over, but its spare direction by Weyni Mengesha lets all these topics shine with a specific clarity.

The tale centers on two brothers. One, a respected jazz artist and convert to Islam currently in jail awaiting trial, and the other a Juilliard graduate more comfortable with classical music, trying to learn his brother’s music both as a form of family bonding, and as a way to support what he believes to be his brother’s innocence.

One is learning the struggles, indignities, and hardenings of incarceration. One is stretching out of a comfort zone and internalized prejudices to attempt understanding the world through his brother’s lens. Both, being African-American, face internal debates about where and with whom they fit.

Matt Orduna gives Bilal, the brother in prison, a kind of elemental dignity which carries him through the torments and prejudices of imprisonment and gives gravitas to the character’s composing life. Donathan Walters finds an interestingly middle stance in Eric, as a conventional guy trying to balance a satisfyingly conventional life with the edginess of both his brother and the jazz music he is learning to both appreciate and perform.

As both the FBI agent who set Bilal up, and a series of correctional officers, Brian Abraham vibrates with a strength and confidence which make him dominatingly convincing. Zehra Fazal creates, in the opera singer Eric shares his musical world with, yet another balance – this time of honoring cultural traditions yet embracing the wider modern world.

Still, the focus is on the two brothers and the gut-level expression of the jazz which both works to unite them, and to explain their elemental differences. In this – the scatting which becomes its own communication – Orduna and Walters excel. It becomes one of the elements which deepens the storyline far beyond the actual plot. Indeed, the play’s layered nature, and what it has to say about manipulation, prejudice and trust must be unpacked over time.

But then that is what one expects of plays at Boston Court: works which take thought even after the show is over.

What: “Bars and Measures” When: through October 23, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Satudays, 2 p.m. Sundays, plus 8 p.m. Wednesday performance on October 19, and two understudy performances 8 p.m. October 3 and 5 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave (at the intersection with Boston Ct) in Pasadena How Much: $30 general, $25 senior, $20 student Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com ;

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