'Zoot Suit' revival, symposium track the impact of Luis Valdez's groundbreaking play then and now
"People often ask me if I'm always going to write about Chicanos," playwright and El Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez says in an upcoming episode of Visiones, the new documentary series on U.S. Latino arts and culture (Sundays, 9:30pm, PBS). "When Woody Allen stops writing about Jews in New York City, I'll stop writing about Chicanos," Valdez says in his cavernous baritone.
As promised, Valdez continues to create new work rooted in the Chicano/Latino experience. In the meantime, a revival of Zoot Suit, his best-known and perhaps most enduring work, comes to Austin as part of the UT Performing Arts Center's ArtesAméricas series.
Described as "an American experience with (Big Band) music," Zoot Suit was created from several key ingredients: the sensationalized account of a 1942 murder in Los Angeles, a vibrant pachuco subculture largely unknown and misunderstood outside the mainstream, the racially motivated Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, and the overarching Mexican-American experience. Further inspired by the victories of the civil rights movement, Valdez wrote Zoot Suit, sensing that his play, set during World War II, would resonate in 1977. It did. Interestingly, 26 years after its first production at the prestigious Mark Taper Forum, the play continues to reverberate in the present.
"There is a rough parallel to the wartime situation of Zoot Suit, to the wartime situation now," Valdez said in a phone interview from his California home. "Racial discrimination during World War II was fueled by war hysteria, and though not as severe now as then, the pachucos, like today's Latino immigrants, are the objects of racial distrust. The parallels are there."
Zoot Suit not only brought a distinctly U.S. Latino aesthetic to a highly visible mainstream theatre, the play, along with earlier work created by El Teatro Campesino, also inspired a generation of Latino artists, who began to see new possibilities in expressive culture.
"Zoot Suit was done on our terms," said Roen Salinas, artistic director of the Aztlan Dance Company. Salinas is one of several local artists who will join Valdez in a symposium co-sponsored by UT and Austin Community College to discuss the play's history and legacy. "[The show] was a catalyst for reminding us that we can render our icons and iconography. It empowered our artistic community to hold on to who we are."
When Zoot Suit premiered, Teatro Vivo Artistic Director Rupert Reyes was working with another California theatre group, El Teatro de la Esperanza. "The play was a marker for me," he says. "Here was a quality show that presented a history that we had forgotten and made it relevant to the present. [As a result] many large [traditional] theatre companies started Latino workshops and productions, none of which had the same impact as Zoot Suit, but it did show that Latinos will go to the theatre if you offer them something."
In addition to Salinas, actress and playwright Amparo Garcia-Crow, Mexic-Arte Museum executive director Sylvia Orozco, poet raulrsalinas, former Mayor Gus Garcia, and other artists, scholars, and civic leaders will speak at the symposium, offering local and personal perspectives on Valdez's work. The symposium is free and open to the public. A detailed schedule is available online at www.utpac.org/commrelations.
Zoot Suit runs through Sept. 19, Thursday-Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 2 and 8pm; Sunday, 2 and 7:30pm, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. For more information, call 469-7469 or visit www.startickets.com.
The Zoot Suit symposium will be held Saturday, Sept. 18, 9am-6pm, at the ACC Riverside Campus, 1020 Grove Blvd., Bldg. G, Rm. 8100. For more information, call 471-6376 or 471-2131 or visit www.utpac.org/commrelations.