Recently, I had the privilege to see a performance of Zoot Suit, the revival at the Mark Taper Forum. While I often speak of theatre as an important tool of cultural consciousness, I also look forward to being entertained when I see a play. And I can unabashedly say that both my wife Michelle and I both loved the show. Charles McNulty of the L.A. Times gave the same performance a rousing review. While thoroughly entertaining, two things quickly came to mind. The first is the relevance of this theatre piece to current cultural and political issues, and the second was the impact Zoot Suit has had on intimate theatre in Los Angeles.
When Luis Valdez first developed Zoot Suit for the Mark Taper, it was radical. It has since come to be considered the first in the genre of Chicano Theatre. The story is loosely based upon events in Los Angeles history at a time when there was a lot of fear and uncertainty about America’s future. World War II was just a few months into the conflict. Fear was abundant, and on February 20, 1942, the first target of public fear was dealt with by allowing the internment of Japanese Americans, anyone with as little as a drop o Japanese blood.
But fear is never abated and only promotes more fear. A mysterious death in August of 1942, the “Sleepy Lagoon Murder” was ascribed to a group of Latino youths in Los Angeles known as the 38th Street Gang. They were steeped in Pachuco culture, which resulted in the prosecution and incarceration of some of their members. Despite the fact that the play refers to events nearly 75 years ago, the process and language is hauntingly familiar. The Pachucos became the easy target of accusations — they’re “subversieve”. These “gang members” looked different in their zoot suits, they had different values (youthful indiscretion) and they were an easy target to keep real American’s fearful attentions focused.
Does this sound a little familiar?
And therein lies the power of theatre. While this particular piece speaks to a very specific set of circumstances, the values and lessons of the story transcend cultural barriers.
Artistically, the development of Zoot Suit also encouraged new voices. It’s not just a coincidence that the swell of intimate theatre in Los Angeles can be traced to about the same time of the original production. With Zoot Suit, a model of development was set out before hundreds of hungry artists looking for a way to build a career. New plays, by new playwrights, with new actors were telling a story that appealed beyond the parochial interest.
So sitting there watching this production, I felt pride. I felt connected to this work, not just for what it said, but because I knew of all the efforts of artists that had gone into making this a success. And then I was saddened. For while theatre will survive, and the power of theatre will continue to do what it has done since the dawn of civilization. The movement that had been given breath by efforts such as Zoot Suit, now has less opportunity.
Where thousands of productions have been mounted since 1979, many of which had access to professional talent at little or no cost, now that opportunity has been hindered. In the last 20 years, from those thousands of shows more than 150 productions were groomed to move beyond their original mounting, not just adding to the American Theatre canon, but creating jobs.
Now, Actors’ Equity Association has unilaterally disallowed professional actors from freely participating in that creative process and forcing an increase to many theatre budgets in the range of $25-40 thousand dollars for each production. This action has deeply curtailed the artistic potential of budding productions and was unsupported by the majority of the actors in the local union.
Building a show is not an event of chance, it is a herculean task undertaken by groups of artists that have more vision than sense. The countless hours of exhaustive effort starts with a lonely playwright and is then augmented by every individual that is brought in to work on the project. For everyone, it is a labor of love.
Fortunately, there are some who realize that these efforts can’t be accomplished in a vacuum. Some support structures have been established to encourage new work development. The Ojai Playwrights Conference is one such effort. Another is Center Theatre Group, which has instituted A Block Party, as noted in American Theatre. Michael Ritchie and staff have chosen severally locally produced plays (Failure: A Love Story, Coeurage Theatre Company Citizen: An American Lyric Fountain Theatre and Dry Land Echo Theater Company.)considered to be some of the best in the region, to perform at the Kirk Douglas theatre later this year. In other cases, some membership companies which have a temporary reprieve for using AEA actors, have focused on new play development and individuals still persist in finding ways to mount their works.
But is it enough?
When watching Zoot Suit, the rational for persecuting the Latinos was identical to the language used to separate out Muslims today. It’s the same concepts that allowed for the Jim Crow laws, it’s the language that allowed for the extermination of Jews in Europe, the imprisonment Japanese Americans in the US and the endless scapegoating of “them” throughout the ages. So no, it is not enough, and anything we can do to help new voices drown out the rhetoric of segregation and dehumanization must be encouraged, supported, and advanced. In time, our conscience, the national voice through the ballot box will tell if it’s enough. For theatre, despite the impediments of AEA, the artists will continue to speak and for that we should be grateful.
If you have a sense of concern, if you’re hungry for truths, theatre is an opportunity to at least address your appetite. We may not have ready solutions to all that ails us, we may have to find more ways to support budding theatre. But remember, while it is easy be entertained while we try to forget what is going on around us, we can and should consider all the varied perspectives offered. It’s both illuminating and fulfilling. Venture out, see what’s out there, test new shows, the lessons of theatre will serve you, and in turn that serves our society.