I made plans to see “Zoot Suit” at Arizona State University after learning that a young woman my daughter Jennifer went to grade school with would be performing in the play.
Kaleena Newman performs the roles of Newsboy and Zooter in the production that runs through Oct. 22 at ASU’s Lyceum Theatre. After chatting with Newman on campus one day, Jennifer decided to tag along with me to see the show.
The other lure was Andrés Alcalá, an associate artist with Childsplay who directs “Zoot Suit” for ASU’s School of Theatre and Film. I’m convinced that following the fine folks of Childsplay is the surest way to find fab theater in the Valley.
Jennifer studies cultural anthropology and has long been fascinated by events surrounding World War II. “Zoot Suit” by playwright Luis Valdez is set in 1940s Los Angeles, and it makes one point abundantly clear: As one war raged abroad, another raged at home. It was a war against racism — and it’s yet to be won.
Close to home we see it in anti-immigration legislation and calls for educators in Tucson to end a long tradition of teaching Chicano studies. In “Zoot Suit,” we witness a gross miscarriage of justice as Chicano youth are arrested and jailed for a crime they didn’t commit — in part because of fear fueled by a fashion statement.
The work reflects something every good student of WWII history knows — that prejudice against those of Japanese, Jewish or African American heritage was also rampant. Be forewarned, if you take younger family members to see “Zoot Suit,” that they’ll hear not only plenty of cursing but also a single use of the “N-word.”
The Broadway production of “Zoot Suit” ran for just 41 performances in 1979. Edward James Olmos, Dexter’s newest nemesis on the Showtime television series, performed the role of narrator El Pachuco on both stage and screen. The 1982 film version of “Zoot Suit” featured Tyne Daly, seen recently in “Master Class” on Broadway, as activist Alice Bloomfield.
ASU’s production of “Zoot Suit” features Nathan Delatorre as El Pachuco and Rod Amez as Henry Reyna, a young man accused of murder the night before he’s set to report for military duty. The cast of 21 delivers a strong ensemble performance that’s powerful evidence of the university’s stellar theater program.
Every element of this production is strong — especially direction by Andrés Alcalá, choreography by Adrian Hernandez, scenic design by Alayne Levine, costume design by Connie Furr-Soloman and lighting design by Anthony Jannuzzi. Infusing masterful media design by Boyd Branch transforms the production into something truly exceptional and rare.
“Zoot Suit” feels a bit like ”West Side Story” — minus the vocal numbers, plus a heavy dose of politics. It’s an entertaining work of social justice theater, but its dialogue too often spoon-feeds the audience. Of course, a spoon would have come in handy after the show as Jennifer treated me to gloriously gooey pretzels from Mellow Mushroom on Mill Avenue.
I’ve long enjoyed outings to ASU Gammage for touring Broadway productions with my youngest daughter Lizabeth, often followed by In–N-Out Burger runs. But having Jennifer join me for an ASU theater production followed by pretzels dripping in honey made for an exciting new twist.
Note: “Zoot Suit,” which opens the 2011-12 Arizona Centennial Season for ASU’s MainStage productions, is part of the CALA Festival. Click here to learn about additional MainStage offerings, and here for more information on the festival. Click here to explore New Carpa Theater, which ”focuses on Latino and multicultural theater works.”
Coming up: Going green on Broadway, Dora explores downtown Phoenix