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10 Things I Loved About Selma Arts Center’s ‘Zoot Suit’

In recognition of Saturday’s final performance of Selma Arts Center’s sold-out “Zoot Suit,” the classic Chicano play by Luis Valdez, I’m offering a list of my favorite moments and details of the production.

In a mini-review that I included with my preview interview (published last week) featuring director Juan Luis Guzman, I wrote:

The production was vibrant, splashy, chilling and heartfelt. Guzmán’s love for the material was 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.

Here are my 10 Things:

1.

The way Mason T. Beltran, as the central character of Henry Reyna, interacted with his girlfriend, Della (a strong Annelise Escobedo Lyman), when the audience first met her.

The two approached each other to say hello, and as he bent toward her, Beltran launched his face so close to hers that at first it seemed an act of tender intimacy. But this was also about domination. That one finely directed moment said a lot not only about the couple’s relationship but also the pervasive masculine energy of this play. Hank is direct and demanding, both with his adversaries and friends. (He says to his newly introduced lawyer: “Who’s paying you, and how much?”) He doesn’t tolerate the existing racial hierarchy, and because of that is considered deeply subversive by those at the top. All this sets up a fascinating conflict throughout the play between two competing masculine ideologies: the white U.S. servicemen in their crisp, tight uniforms; and Chicano men wearing the extravagantly loose-fitting Zoot suits, which seem to flaunt the ruling order. With his deep voice, imposing physical bearing and nuanced acting, Beltran was superbly cast in the role, bringing bristle and forcefulness to the tale of an unjustly accused man.

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2.

The nonchalance and playfulness of Antonio Olivera III as Pachuco, Hank’s superego and the play’s fantastical narrator.

Olivera brought a circus barker’s intensity to the role, but there was also more than a hint of sadness beneath the bravado-joviality. In the second act, we see that vulnerability exposed when Pachuco becomes the personification of what the Zoot Suit Riots — the basis for the play’s title — were all about, as U.S. servicemen beat up Chicanos on the streets of Los Angeles. Olivera made the moment moving.

3.

The crackling stage energy of Karina Balfour as Alice Bloomfield, the crusading Jewish activist who fights to have Hank’s unjust conviction (along with those of his friends) overturned.

“Zoot Suit” is a period piece, and there was more than a hint of a throaty, 1940s sass in Balfour’s portrayal, but it was never stale or stereotyped. I love the relationship that develops in the play between Hank and Alice when he’s in prison. She pushes back when he tries to push her around. That’s what she hates most, she tells him — when people attempt to browbeat her. In Balfour’s accomplished hands, it was a nuanced moment that not only gave us a glimpse of our main character’s flaws, but also illuminated Alice’s own place in the world.

4.

Steven Montalvo’s choreography.

It was robust, crisply staged and nicely danced. My favorite choreographic moment came in prison, in a number titled “Handball,” when Hank and his friends recreate the motion of the ball with a series of moves that tumble together into a combination of athleticism, repression, fear, anger and desire. The number felt alive and, perhaps, even a little weird, but it was the kind of weirdness that makes you sit up and think: There’s something pretty cool going on here.

5.

The garments made from newspapers hanging on the clothesline.

This newspaper-inspired design theme was carried through the show, with newspapers turned into props in creative ways. Those references reminded us of the pervasiveness of the media and the way that lies can whip the public into a frenzy — whether it’s 1942 or 2021. And talk about fake news: In the play we hear of rumors that Japanese-American citizens in internment camps are directing the actions of Hank’s gang in prison. If Facebook had been around in World War II, those rumors would have spread like wildfire around the world.

6.

The Pachuca Trio consisting of of I Adeficha, Tidy Gill and Glenda Stewart.

They served as musical guides, easing us into the play’s vibrant soundtrack and smoothing together the musical-theater elements with the non-musical elements of the play. They moved with aplomb, their costumes (by Guzmán) were fabulous, and their presence offered a line of continuity threading through the rapidly shifting narrative. Plus, they sounded great.

7.

A solid ensemble.

The hard-working cast included such players as Dalicia Torrecillas as Hank’s empathetic mother, John Piper as his tormented younger brother, and a brassy reporter duo of Casey Ballard and Caleb Robbins. The hard-working Chase Stubblefield played so many minor roles (including a biased judge — some things never change) that it must have been hard for him to remember who he was from one moment to the next. And the members of the 38th Street gang (Adam Chavez, Quincy Maxwell and Jorge Romero Vaca) each brought distinctive shadings to their characters that added nuance to the production.

8.

David Esquivel’s lights and Nicolette C. Andersen’s versatile scenic design.

Both were standouts among the production design.

9.

Regina Harris’ sound design.

I never felt as if the lyrics were overpowered by the music.

10.

And, finally, Juan Luis Guzmán’s passion for this project.

I encourage you to read my interview with him if you haven’t done so already. It’s a tale of persistence and love for the material. For all its fame, “Zoot Suit” isn’t performed all that often, probably because it has such a big cast and requires a deep bench of acting and musical talent. (Not to mention a large costume budget.) To see it mounted so handsomely, with such attention to detail, and with such a keen appreciation of the way its themes still resonate today, is a real testament to Selma Arts Center’s place in the community. I’m glad in the final weeks of the run that it was so hard to get a ticket. It means a lot of other people appreciated this distinctive theatrical event, too.


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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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