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Needled by 'Stinking Badges'

February 20, 1986|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer.

The latest drama by Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, "I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges," opened in Los Angeles recently to generally good reviews. I hope that guarantees the play's success with mainstream theater audiences, because Latinos probably won't flock to it.

For "Badges" is quite different from Valdez's previous plays, notably "Zoot Suit," the major hit for which he is best known by the many Latinos who are not regular theatergoers. "Zoot Suit" told what could have been a depressing story, the suppression of Chicano street gangs by Los Angeles authorities during World War II, in a colorful and even inspiring manner. With its powerful acting, flashy dancing and big-band era music, "Zoot Suit" won over even members of the audience (like me) who were dubious about its portrayal of pachuco street toughs as innocent victims and of Anglo authority figures as racist oppressors.

The play ran a year in Los Angeles, thanks largely to its popularity with Mexican-Americans; it was not nearly as successful in New York, or when it was made into a movie.

"I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges," on the other hand, does not use political symbols that Chicanos are comfortable with, like the pachucos in "Zoot Suit," or cultural symbols that they are proud of, like the Mexican revolutionaries in another recent Valdez play, "Corridos," to get its message across. Instead, "Badges" is a study of the mundane--of life in suburbia, Mexican-American style. It also is about the psychic toll that middle-class success takes on a young Latino. The setting, the characters and the theme are so familiar that they make well-to-do Chicanos in the audience (the ones most likely to be able to afford a night of live theater) distinctly uncomfortable.

The play deals with how a Chicano family in Monterey Park reacts to the crisis that develops when their bright young son drops out of Harvard Law School to become an actor. Sound dreary? It isn't, because Valdez is a funny writer who uses that situation to satirize modern American society, from franchised fast-food to TV sitcoms. At more than one point in "Badges," Valdez pokes fun at the family's "cheap, plastic imitation of Anglo life."

Valdez also throws in some political commentary about U.S. policy in Central America. Even the play's title carries a message, it being an oft-quoted bit of dialogue from the classic film, "Treasure of Sierra Madre." When Alfonso Bedoya, playing a dirty and dangerous Mexican bandit, threatened Humphrey Bogart with that line, it epitomized to many Chicanos the crude and demeaning way Mexicans have been portrayed in popular American media. Valdez has some sharp comments about that history in this play, too.

Unfortunately, the Latinos who see "Badges" may miss these cogent points and instead be put off by how knowingly Valdez dissects the pretensions of upwardly mobile Chicanos like his protagonists, the Villa family. A particularly telling scene takes place when Connie and Buddy Villa, who achieved their comfortable middle-class status by working as Hollywood extras, return home from the annual banquet organized by Nosotros, the organization of Latino actors. Buddy is wearing a tuxedo and Connie a stylish evening gown and fur coat. She boasts that the Nosotros dinner is the one night a year Latino actors "put on the dog." Asked what her coat is, she replies "Dog."

The line gets a big laugh. But I suspect that members of Nosotros laugh uneasily.

For the record, Nosotros is a fine community organization whose members work hard to improve the professional standing of Latinos in the entertainment industry. However, at times their efforts are embarrassingly imitative of what Anglos in "The Industry" do to convince themselves that they are important. The Nosotros dinner, for example, could pass for a parody of the annual Academy Awards ceremony, right down to the long-winded thank-you speeches. But like the organizers of the Oscar show, Nosotros takes its dinner very seriously.

Valdez has caught such pretense perfectly, and he has incorporated it into "Badges" so skillfully that it won't be possible for Latinos in the audience to simply sit back and wait for the good-guy Chicanos to vanquish the bad-guy Anglos as they did in "Zoot Suit."

Instead, "Badges " will make Latinos in the audience look at the tensions inside themselves. Sure, Valdez is saying, we Latinos are making it nowadays, as actors and lawyers, business executives and even playwrights--but are we losing our souls in the process?

"I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges" is too complex and challenging a play for its audiences to simply sit back and enjoy, so it probably won't be the hit "Zoot Suit" was. But it will stand as a tribute to its author's growth as an artist, and to his intellectual courage. Valdez is willing to ask uncomfortable questions about his people and, by extension, himself.

Some Latinos who see "Badges" may not want to answer the questions. But they will have to think about them. And that's one of the things theater, at its best, is supposed to do.

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