Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Review: Zoot Suit. Sapo and Culture Clash. Guest Column: David Bowles

The Devil and Luis Valdez 

Review, Zoot Suit. Mark Taper Form,  Los Angeles. Now through March 26.
Michael Sedano

Center Theatre Group publicity fotos

Any comparison between the history-making 1978 production of Zoot Suit with its 2017 retelling would be unfair to the latter. It’s not the same Zoot Suit  We are older but the audience is younger. The times have changed and the crap hasn’t. We are still here. Frail memories of that 1978 experience and surrounding hype elevate expectations that will not be satisfied. I saw the 2017 production in preview and last Saturday the 18th. Both times were satisfying theatrical experiences of themselves, and definitely a cut above the Taper’s regular programming.

The devil came to Los Angeles wearing a black silk zoot suit carrying a paper-still-wrinkly script by Luis Valdez and backed by the big band sounds of Lalo Guerrero with inspired choreography by Maria Torres. In a contest for Henry Reyna’s soul, the devil beguiles the teenager with lots of huisas, frenetic dancing, infectious swing rhythms, but leads Henry through a set of crises that will force Hank to choose between pachuquismo or whatever is out there.

The idea of Zoot Suit as a morality play pales in the face of the infectious music and smile-inducing throng of jitterbuggers filling the stage in constant movement with slick vocal arrangements and show-stopper solos. But that’s the devil at work, to keep you from doing anything but sit back in your expensive upholstered seat and let Zoot Suit work its magic.

El Pachuco is puro myth, from the switchblade he uses to part the curtains to his wonderful admission that the play reflects “the secret fantasy of every vato, living in or out of la pachucada, to put on a zoot suit and play the myth, mas chucote que la chingada. Pues orale!” But his is a persuasive myth that holds young Reyna in its grip and Reyna does everything possible to meet pachuco demands.

Henry Reyna is young and virile, a rooster loose in the chicken yard. El Pachuco is Reyna’s alternate self, an alter ego who swaggers and snarls across the stage, is quick with fist and filero, philosophizing to Henry about being a man, having a place in society, offering Henry a role model by embodying defiance and competence, recklessness and explosive spontaneity, and a quick ironic wit.

Being pachuco exacts a heavy penalty on Henry, as when Henry and Della are jumped. Henry’s first thought after having his ass kicked at Sleepy Lagoon is to go get some pachucos to raid the Downey Boys and get even. It’s the event that the court farce converts into life in San Quentin. In prison, Henry confronts the cost of playing into the myth. In a profoundly anguished speech, Henry tells el Pachuco to disappear, allowing Reyna to manage his life on his own. At first, el Pachuco doesn't speak, then he breaks the silence and discomfort by quipping , “relax, ese, it’s just a pinche play.”

Is Henry lonely, or is he playing the field, playacting the ever-irresponsible macho? Something is going on between Alice and Henry, even with a guard peering down at their intimate conversations. When he gets home, he’s estranged from Della, who did a year in juvie for being Henry Reyna’s huisa. El Pachuco isn’t around to offer consejos on women and love. It’s a plot thread that didn’t need to be, especially to make room for more of the elders.

The parents have insignificant roles and cursory scenes. Cultural transition and generational change play important roles in pachuco ethos. When the father complains about the language the kids speak they rebuke him with loving tenderness. When the kids gather to leave for a dance, the father demands the boys kiss his hand to demonstrate their obedience. One obedient son then gets puking drunk at the party leading to a knife fight between Henry and Rafas from Downey. The dissonance between core family values and destructive public behavior offers fertile rows to hoe, but sadly, the play lets it lie fallow, to our loss.

Director Luis Valdez and the casting trio of Rosalinda Morales, Pauline O’Con, and Candido Cornejo assembled a powerful company who are still growing into their roles, given the preview and last weekend’s matinee. It’s a wonder seeing so many dancers and actors of color, purportedly Chicana Chicano artists. How refreshing to see a Taper cast filled with local actors, including the two leads. A number of out-of-towners come from el Teatro Campesino’s hometown of San Juan Bautista. Carrying el papel of el Pachuco is a film and television actor who grew up in Mexico, Demian Bichir. It’s Bichir’s Mark Taper Forum debut. Hank Reyna is Matias Ponce, a local television and stage actor who has appeared for LATC, the city’s major raza theater.

Among supporting cast are Rose Portillo and Daniel Valdez as the mother and father. Portillo portrayed the ingénue lead, Della, in the 1978 run. There’s a special warmth in the fact Valdez portrays his own father. In the first-run production, Daniel Valdez was Hank Reyna. Before that, Valdez was the original el Pachuco in Zoot Suit’s New Theater For Now run.

The el Pachuco role makes strenuous demands of an actor who must go from repartee to fast dancing and prancing then back to narration, without sounding out of breath nor soaked in sweat. Demian Bichir handles the role with grace. Bichir doesn’t need the growling voice, especially as he doesn’t sing with it, and loses it regularly to talk just like a normal actor. If he thinks growling makes him menacing he needs to re-think that, instead use presence to turn on that persona so that people all the way in the back row feel the heat.

Matias Ponce left me wanting more. Hank Reyna is magnetic, draws pachucos pachucas to him where they act with dangerous stupidity just because it’s Hank’s word. Ponce’s Henry Reyna isn’t yet fully alive with commanding charisma. At the climactic moment when the cast shouts out, “Henry Reyna lives!” I don’t feel like standing up and cheering like the line is supposed to work.

Hank hasn't made me feel all that bad when fate sends Hank back to the pinta only to OD later. I’m not as moved as I’d like to be, hearing that alternative Hank got KIA in Korea and his body got the Medal of Honor. I like to think Hank and Della are happily ever after in Frogtown and their kids go to school and learn to read "See Spot, see Spot run." Henry matters. I want to stand teary-eyed and cheer. It’s in the role for Ponce to find it.

I’d buy a ticket just to see if Bichir and Ponce ever get to the top of their roles, but the run appears to be sold out except for a smattering of seats. Not insuperable; you will take seat N18, your date can have the one closer to the action, K55.

¿Pero sabes que? Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum deserves to be the hottest ticket in town. Don’t let your own pachuco devil whisper in your ear that it’s too much trouble, that it’s just a pinche play, don't take it so seriously. Chale, ese. Zoot Suit is a great Unitedstatesian play, the greatest Chicano play. Audiences across the region deserve to get up to the Music Center and treat themselves to a memorably magical afternoon, or evening, of Teatro Campesino and Luis Valdez at the top of their game.

Here's Jesus Treviño's Latinopia review of Zoot Suit. Treviño attended opening night on Sunday, February 12.

Sapo at the Getty Villa

The guys with the worn scripts in their hands are having a blast with the rapid fire repartee and ad libs that sizzle. Even mistakes like being on the wrong page and having no idea get turned into laugh riots. The guys are Culture Clash, in the final workshop performance of Sapo at the Getty Villa in Malibu, and they work with script in hand and lots of friendly energy coming from the packed house.

Sapo is beautiful comedy altogether, with several precious bits, too many to enumerate. There’s a hilarious slow-mo embrace, lots of convoluted speed talking and double entendres, asides directly to the audience, a beautiful voice belts out the sensuous “Sabor a mi” accompanying herself on the guitarrón. At one point, Richard Montoya steps into the audience and runs up the aisle talking to people. There is a beautifully emotional moment of purity when a child recites a hopeful lyric.

Richard Montoya congratulates The Poet
Montoya addresses the house at the end, telling the packed rows today’s has been their best work. There’s no word on where they go from here. Workshop means to ferment and hone ideas. Sunday’s Sapo was all that and more.

A visit to Malibu Getty takes planning. Admission is free but parking is $15.00. For the workshop performances, tickets are only $7.00. Plan to be there five or six hours to browse in the gardens and galleries. The things you’ll see!

Figure from Cyrpus, 3000 B.C.

Guest Columnist: David Bowles 
Political Resistance in Chupacabra Vengeance

Latino speculative fiction quite often takes a subversive stance of resistance and critical response to longstanding power structures that marginalize and erase the experience of Latinx in the US. In Ink by Sabrina Vourvoulias, a near-future America with biometric tattoos, and an underground network of gente protects refugees from government oppression. Ernest Hogan’s High Aztech pits a cabal of American Christians against followers of indigenous religion. Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older features young people openly opposing cultural appropriation and gentrification, using magical graffiti as one tool of resistance. 

With the rise of neo-fascism in Trump’s America, this role we Latinx writers of spec-fic play — as creators of alternative or future worlds in which marginalization and erasure can be fought with magical or science-fictional tools —has become even more crucial. And it’s in our modern setting of immigration bans, border walls, public lists, and deportation squads that Broken River Books publishes this month my short story collection Chupacabra Vengeance with what I dare to hope is poignant timeliness.

Chupacabra Vengeance consists of fifteen stories that range from science fiction to fantasy, horror to weird, and various subgenres in between. The pieces are arranged as five interrelated triplets, but the book itself is woven together by Latino culture, characters, and aesthetics. 

But more relevant for this discussion is the social and political resistance that threads through a good number of the stories. In “Aztlan Liberated,” for example, the US Southwest and part of Northern Mexico has been walled off by both governments, the remaining raza inside abandoned to deal as best they can with alien monsters trapped with them. When a US military mission to wipe out the chupacabras fails, a band of cholos decides finish what their oppressors started … but broadcasting their bravery live so it won’t be erased or appropriated.

Border brutality also shows up in the title story. Their father dead, the family goats slain by blood-sucking aliens, a brother and sister from Puebla risk their lives aboard the train known as The Beast in order to reach the US and search for the their mother. But when they arrive at the border, they encounter even greater horror at the hands of men and women who treat refugees with cruel inhumanity.

Small-town politics, even in Mexican-American communities, often requires resistance from la raza. “Barbie versus el Puma Negro” features a scheming right-wing politician who hires a brujo to ensure his electoral victory. When black magic brings a dead luchador back to life, however, a schoolteacher who moonlights as the Río Grande Valley’s spiritual protector will have to face zombies and past trauma to preserve her community. 

One of the great things about science fiction is that it allows a writer to flip present sociopolitical realities on their head, and that’s what I sought to do in “Undocumented.” A few centuries from now, climate change has triggered a new ice age that plunges the US into turmoil. After most of his family succumbs to the environmental devastation, a young Mexican-American sets out on a trek to cross the border into Mexico — facing the dangerous sentinels put in place to keep gringos away — in hopes of securing a better future for himself. 

Another sort of speculation I enjoy for its power of social critique is alternate history. I set “Flower War” in a world where the Nahuas (“Aztecs”) were never conquered. It’s the 1960s, and the scientists of Cemanahuac (“Mexico”) are engaged in a race to the moon with the Soviet Union. The major obstacle is a group of extreme religious terrorists who view the moon as sacred and will do anything they can to keep human boots off her surface. 

I also take aim at Anglo/European patriarchy and oppression in two weird West tales. “Ancient Hunger, Silent Wings” centers on a teenage tlahuelpuchi or Mexican vampire in 19th-century Las Vegas, New Mexico. When her appetite for innocent blood begins leaving a trail, she tracked down by a pair of monster slayers. They try to bring her to heel, but she refuses to compromise her nature: “To hell with you and your threats. I’m done submitting. I will never relent!”

Set a few years later in the same universe, “Iron Horse, Mythic Horn” is narrated by an 18-year-old Chiricahua Apache. She is rescued from an abusive white adoptive father by Shaolin monks who have come to the US with the last ch’i-lin or unicorn, hoping to do something about the deaths and unceremonious burials of so many Chinese immigrants. Toward the end of a harrowing and tragic voyage by train, she deals with the grieving guilt of an Anglo “hero” in a way that brooks no compromise: “I didn’t want to comfort him. In that moment, I figured he just would have to bear the blame, even though he was never involved. His people done the crime, and he was the kind of man what would try to make amends. That, it seemed to me, was justice of a sort.” 

This slippery justice, born of resistance from the shadows and margins, is of primal importance to me as an author and member of the Mexican-American community. Speculative fiction may seem an odd venue for exploring those themes, but sometimes seeing the monstrous injustice we face depicted as actual monsters helps clarify a vision for revolutionary reform. 

David Bowles is a Mexican-American author from deep south Texas, where he teachers at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, the Texas Institute of Letters and the Texas Associated Press, he has written several titles, including the Purá Belpré Honor Book The Smoking Mirror and Lords of the Earth.

His work has been featured in Rattle, BorderSenses, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Asymptote, Translation Review, Huizache, The Journal of Children’s Literature, and Voices de la Luna, among others.

March 11 & 12 Art Acquisition Bonanza

Arte by well-established artists, like those listed below, usually have prices starting at a thousand dollars and escalating from there. Here's an arte offer that's tough to refuse, five hundred dollars or less to acquire work by some of the most well-established artists of contemporary Chicanarte.


David Bowles said...

¡Gracias, Michael! Agradezco un chorro que me metieras en tu columna. You are a true gentleman, homes. :D

Thelma T. Reyna said...

Outstanding review of "Zoot Suit" by Jesus Trevino! Thanks for sharing this with us.