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For director Juan Luis Guzman, bringing ‘Zoot Suit’ to Selma Arts Center is a longtime dream

The hottest theater ticket in town is “Zoot Suit,” a Selma Arts Center production of Luis Valdez’s iconic Chicano play. The company announced on social media over the weekend that all remaining tickets for the run — which continues through Nov. 20 — are sold out.

Pictured above: While not technically a musical, ‘Zoot Suit’ includes extensive choreography by Steven Montalvo. Photo: Selma Arts Center

The production is vibrant, splashy, chilling and heartfelt. Director Juan Luis Guzmán’s love for the material is evident throughout, from the emphatic production design (which immerses you in World War II-era Los Angeles with flash and grit) to the masculine swagger of unjustly accused characters resisting the insidiousness of racism. I got to see the production on opening weekend, and I was impressed. (I’ve been swamped with writing in the past week; I’ll be posting a review in a few days.)

In a phone and email interview, I talked with Guzmán about the production, a longtime dream of his.

Q: Do you remember when you first read “Zoot Suit”? Did you ever think you’d direct it one day?

A: Believe it or not, I didn’t read “Zoot Suit” until I was in college. Which goes to show how unavailable Chicano texts were to me as a high school student, even in the valley. Towards the end of high school, I began searching for Latino—and specifically Chicano—writers on my own. Discovering Gary Soto, for example, put me on the path to finding Luis Valdez and the Teatro Campesino.

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I watched the film way before I read the play. I have to admit, I may not have thought I would be directing it after reading it the first time, but I do remember feeling a certain call to action after reading it, like I had to share it with as many people as I could. It didn’t feel real to me. I watched the film version obsessively and only then would I start to imagine how I could stage it, what certain elements meant, how something from the film might translate to the stage, etc. I don’t think I knew then that I could do something like direct a show.

Q: Why do you feel so personally connected to the play?

A: There’s one scene early on in the play that focuses on the family. It’s one of my favorite moments in both the stage version and the film. In the film version, Lupe Ontiveros is making tortillas and beans while the actors who play her sons get ready in bedrooms that look like the ones I remember growing up around. In the play, the dad gets home from work while the mother is hanging clothes on the line. They code-switch, speaking to each other in both English and Spanish.

They use the same Chicano slang my dad used around his friends. I recognized the idioms used by the mother because my own mother used them with us. There was a sense of lineage to this play that I immediately recognized as my own. I had never encountered that in theatre before reading Zoot Suit. The Chicano experience is an unique one, and this play offers audiences a sliver of that life.

Q: Teatro Campesino is an important part of theater history. Do you know if local students learn about it these days? Why is it essential that they do?

A: I’m not sure if they do or not, but it’s a shame if they don’t, especially if they’re from these small towns in Fresno County where the Teatro was doing so much of its work. It’s essential that local students learn about their local history, and we are fortunate to be surrounded by so much of it. For me, learning about El Teatro taught me that there is political power in theatre. It taught me that theatre can be used to bring community together.

For those who aren’t familiar, El Teatro Campesino was founded in the mid-60’s as Cesar Chavez led the United Farmworkers Union’s strike in Delano. Members of El Teatro performed sketches, or actos, on flatbed trucks and toured to different sites where migrant farmworkers worked and lived in order to perform. These actors were used not only to entertain, but, more importantly, to educate the farmworkers about their rights, about unfair labor practices, about the union, etc. I think a lot about the ways in which Valdez was able to fuse social justice, community, and theatre and it not only drives me towards future projects, it holds me accountable to my own practices as a director.

Selma Arts Center

Scenes from ‘Zoot Suit,’ which runs through Nov. 20.

Q: Most people know the term zoot suit as an article of clothing — a stylized man’s suit with wide padded shoulders and lapels, wide legs, lots of drapy fabric. Sort of incredibly, the design of the suit became a hotly contested issue during World War II, prompting the Zoot Suit Riots in L.A. How did using a few square inches of extra fabric become such an ugly racial flash point?

A: I would say it was a number of issues that all came to a boil. This was not a very uplifting time in the US. Not only were people simply exhausted by the wartime rations placed upon them, they were also experiencing a widespread paranoia after Pearl Harbor, much of that paranoia being race-based and leading us to act in some very dark ways. (This was also around the time of the Japanese internment camps here in California, for example.) This paranoia was heightened by the way the press talked about Americans of color, calling many Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles “baby gangsters,” “thugs,” “hoodlums,” and “pachucos,” and spreading the idea that they were committing violent crimes and filling the neighborhoods with drugs.

More than that, because fabric was among the items that were rationed, many saw the zoot suit as being un-American. Thus, wearing the zoot suit became a political act for Mexican-Americans. It was an act of defiance and a symbol of power, a way for this community to become visible, literally seen, in a society that was openly discriminating against them. Many servicemen and police officers across the city clearly did not like this and took it upon themselves to find Mexicans (most of whom were wearing zoot suits, though sometimes they were not) to beat and strip them in the streets. This is what the Zoot Suit Riots were, a period of several days in which these beatings occurred. Though they began in LA, they sparked similar events all across the country.

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Q: In terms of scale, budget and complexity, “Zoot Suit” is more like a musical than a play. (And, indeed, there’s music and choreography involved.) What particular challenges did you face bringing this production to the stage?

A: You mention music and choreography, which were two of the earliest challenges. The size of the cast (26 of them!) also added a level of complexity for me because I’m used to working with smaller casts. These are big dance numbers with various forms of dancing.

We were fortunate enough to team up with Steven Montalvo of Montalvo School of Performing Arts in Kerman, who provided beautiful choreography to each number. He worked with our fight captains to choreograph the major fight scenes, too. The music of the show spans from swing to mambo and Steven had the right background as a performer himself to make this happen for our production. When the show has a costume piece in the title, costumes are going to be particularly important as well, and so we worked with Bebe O’s in Fresno’s Tower District to supply some of the looks in the show along with most of the zoot suits you see on stage. I relied on the talents of Erik and Nicolette Andersen in terms of set construction and design and leaned into Dominic Grijalva and Sami Valle’s projection designs to help make the stage a stationary unit that could be home to multiple scenes.

Q: Tell us about El Pachuco, a central character in the show. What does he represent? What is his relationship to the audience? What qualities does Antonio Olivera bring to the role? (And is he still sporting that great mustache?)

A: Pachuco is a mysterious character in the show. Part narrator, part ghost, he exists mostly as a figure in Henry’s consciousness, though he interacts with others throughout the show as well, including the audience. As a Chicano, Henry faces a dual identity, trying to juggle what it means to be an American while also staying true to his Mexican culture and roots. El Pachuco is a voice that guides Henry across that barbed wire fence that separates the two cultures. For better or worse, he’s a part of Henry.


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Antonio is such a smooth Pachuco! He brings a coolness, a humor, and also a unique intensity to this role. This is a tough role to play, made famous by Edward James Olmos, and people who know this show/film/play have a deep love for Pachuco. Antonio doesn’t disappoint. More than that, he is such a generous scene partner and watching him work alongside this cast, particularly Mason Beltran as Henry, has been such a gift for me as a director. And yes—the mustache remains!

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

A: I’ve always been surprised that this show isn’t done more often, especially in our region. I’ve been moved by the stories I hear from audiences who attended the first week of the run. They are so connected to this story and these characters. It reminds me that theatre is for everyone. Theatre is for everyone. Stories like “Zoot Suit,” which uplift minoritized communities, exist and need to be told. We need to recognize our responsibility as makers of theater to use our work and platforms to continuously uplift these voices. I’m thankful to the Selma Arts Center for recognizing that, for saying yes to this show, and for showing the community that these stories matter and deserve to be told.


 


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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