Challenging Machismo

‘Zoot Suit’ celebrates Chicanx culture, breaks down gender roles

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Forty years ago, Luis Valdez created “Zoot Suit” to draw attention to Chicano culture in mainstream media. Now, Luis Valdez’s son, director Kinan Valdez, has revitalized the play to address the current political climate and themes of racism and sexism still significant today.

“Zoot Suit” opened on the Main Stage at UC Santa Cruz on May 26. With shows Thursday through Sunday June 4, the play features musical numbers and celebrates Chicanx culture during the time of the Zoot Suit Riots.

Henry Reyna (played by Rey Cordova) and El Pachuco (played by Gianna DiGregorio Rivera) do the classic Pachuco pose in the tacuche, or zoot suit. Photo courtesy of Steve DiBartolomeo.
Henry Reyna (played by Rey Cordova) and El Pachuco (played by Gianna DiGregorio Rivera) do the classic Pachuco pose in the tacuche, or zoot suit. Photo courtesy of Steve DiBartolomeo.

Set in Los Angeles in the 1940s, the play focuses on the story of Henry Reyna, played by second-year Rey Cordova, and the 38th Street gang, which was tried in the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial. The trial revealed the blatant discrimination from the police and courts, which reflected the attitudes of the city and the nation toward Mexicans at the time.

“It is unfortunately timely because it is a cautionary tale of abuses of power at a systemic level […] Political entities direct their energy at a targeted population because they are different, phenotypically or culturally,” said production director Kinan Valdez. “That’s what’s at the core of the play, the xenophobia and vilifying an entire community because they are different.”

UCSC Theater Arts worked with El Teatro Campesino, a Latinx theater troupe from central California, to produce the show. It’s the second production company to perform the new script, which included more emphasis on women and their presence during the events in the 1940s. In the January 2017 revision of the play, the elder Valdez expanded on the relationship between Reyna and Reyna’s love, Della, in order to focus more on pachucas –– the female zoot suiters.

This is the first El Teatro Campesino-sanctioned production to feature an actress, Gianna DiGregorio Rivera, as the lead role of El Pachuco. El Pachuco is a traditionally male character inside Reyna’s head who often comments on his actions and acts and serves as a symbol of the zoot suit.

Henry Reyna and Della (played by Nicole Muckenthaler) talk about their lives together at the Sleepy Lagoon. Photo courtesy of Steve DiBartolomeo.
Henry Reyna and Della (played by Nicole Muckenthaler) talk about their lives together at the Sleepy Lagoon. Photo courtesy of Steve DiBartolomeo.

Changing the more traditional expectation of the male lead as El Pachuco made it more nerve-wracking to take on the role, Rivera said.

“Women during the Zoot Suit Riots got their asses kicked just like the men, and they are often not given the same depiction as men are, particularly in ‘Zoot Suit,’” Rivera said. “It feels good to have some Chicana representation in terms of the strong characters of the show.”

The press also serves as a prominent figure in the play, emphasized across the backdrop by newspaper headlines during the time of the riots and mayhem to show the power the media had on changing public perception of Mexicans.

“People of color and marginalized groups are still oppressed today and often in different and more insidious ways than in the past,” Rivera said. “A lot of the language is outright racist and prejudiced but nowadays people have learned to code their language, so they are saying the same thing but it’s just done in a different way.”

Audience member Marceline Ramirez went to the production to support her friends and co-workers and was struck by the casting of El Pachuco.

“Given how machismo plays into Chicana culture, casting that role of El Pachuco — [who is] such a masculine figure — as a woman breaks those boundaries of what macho is supposed to mean in Chicanx culture,” Ramirez said.

The new direction of “Zoot Suit” became a reflection of today’s culture,” director Kinan Valdez said. Not only do characters’ genders change, but the play cast different actors of different ethnicities so the audience can visualize the events through a multicultural lens. As the curtain dropped and the actors took a bow, the audience members stood in applause.

“[The play] acknowledges the need for all of us to come together and find our common humanity and fight for what is good and what is right,” Valdez said. “That is also what needs to be celebrated right now, to inspire people to resist.”