Director Luis Valdez watched his actors intently Wednesday night from a seat overlooking a small, curved stage at the Skirball Cultural Center in Brentwood. The stocky Chicano playwright sat behind a recording console as his 16-member troupe worked through the opening night of a novel new production of "Zoot Suit," the play that put Chicano theater on the map 23 years ago and made its creator famous.
Valdez was dressed in black jeans and T-shirt. He had headphones on, a yellow legal pad in his lap. The top page was filled with neatly handwritten phrases, double-spaced and titled: "Xtra Lines."
Some were lines Valdez added to his historic play to make it work for this revival, the first in Los Angeles since "Zoot Suit" opened at the Mark Taper Forum in 1978. This time, El Pachuco, the now fabled character with the tightly coiled but cool mannerisms, was not meant to be seen. Only heard.
Though it's being performed before a live audience, this incarnation of "Zoot Suit" is also being recorded for radio. There will be seven performances through Sunday, the best of them spliced together for a final audio version of the work, which dramatizes the story of a Chicano family caught up in the hysteria surrounding the Zoot Suit riots of 1943.
This week's revival is being produced for later broadcast by L.A. Theatre Works, in association with Valdez's Teatro Campesino and KCRW/National Public Radio. As part of the series called "The Play's the Thing," "Zoot Suit" will join some 300 American works already staged as live radio by the nonprofit group.
Wednesday's live audience, which ranged from elderly Anglos to teenage Latinos, had the benefit of seeing the actors as they played their parts before four microphones on a bare stage. They wore minimal costumes and read from their scripts. But there was no scenery and the only props were simple objects--a mallet, a 2-by-4, a chain, a whistle--used by a sound-effects person sitting at a table, stage right.
Jorge Huerta, a theater professor at UC San Diego, teaches the work in class and knows it almost by heart. To imagine how it would sound over the radio, Huerta closed his eyes during the show Wednesday night.
"You're able to focus on the text and the text alone, and it stands up very well," the professor said during intermission. "It proves the play has got a soul. It's got something to say that's quite riveting after all these productions."
Following the first performance, Valdez appeared pleased, although he plans to fine-tune it during the remaining performances.
"Come back and see it on the weekend," he said as he patiently signed autographs for a group of Latino high school students. "It'll be a different show."
Valdez announced to the small cluster of admirers that he is planning a new, fully staged production of "Zoot Suit" in Los Angeles next year. Then he thanked the 14- and 15-year-olds for coming.
"It means a lot to have your spirit here," Valdez said. "Our young people need to know what went before them."
Valdez founded the Teatro Campesino during the height of the farm-worker movement of the 1960s led by Cesar Chavez. "Zoot Suit" became his first major commercial success and the first Chicano play ever produced on Broadway.
The story is based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder case of 1942, in which 22 members of a Chicano gang were tried en masse for a murder they claimed they didn't commit. Half were sent to prison and were serving long sentences when the so-called Zoot Suit riots engulfed L.A. a year later. Fanned by a sensationalist anti-minority press, U.S. servicemen hunted down Chicanos on the street, beating them and stripping them of their snazzy, swing-era outfits of flashy coats, feathered hats, baggy pants and long chains looping down their legs.
"Zoot Suit" opened the doors of mainstream theater for Latinos. It made a star of actor Edward James Olmos as the original Pachuco, who serves as narrator and the ghostly conscience of the conflicted main character, gang leader Henry Reyna. Even the poster depicting Pachuco towering over L.A. became an iconic image for the Chicano community.
"It is the first time that a Chicano play entered the mainstream consciousness," said Susan Albert Loewenberg, founder and producing director of L.A. Theatre Works.
Today, Valdez's Teatro Campesino is a family affair. The founder's three grown sons--Anahuac, Kinan and Lakin--are "the backbone" of the company, now in its 36th year. The cast of the live radio show features Daniel, the director's brother, who played the original Henry Reyna on stage and now returns as Henry's conservative father, Enrique. Daniel's two daughters, Primavera Flor and Katrina, also appear in the production.
Kinan and Lakin Valdez play the Reyna brothers, Henry and Rudy. The younger Lakin, 23, was born on the day Luis Valdez finished writing "Zoot Suit." On Wednesday, the young actor delivered his final, tearful monologue passionately from memory.