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"Zoot Suit," show #822

I am a fan of Selma Arts Center. I enjoy their fearlessness in tackling off-the-beaten-path plays and musicals, as well as their reimagined classics. Though Zoot Suit is neither, never have I ever seen a more perfectly suited title for this company to produce. Helmed with passionate detail by Juan Luis Guzman, this Zoot Suit is a dynamic piece of Chicano history being done with the in-your-face, unapologetic gusto it deserves.

This is a play that is near and dear to my heart, having first read it during my collegiate theatre program. It put me in touch with the Gonzalez side of my family that I hadn’t really explored deeper than my grandparents’ stories and the basic California public education curriculum. I admit, though, that as good as Luis Valdez’s play is on the page, seeing it staged has been a theatrical desire of mine for quite some time. I am pleased to report that the Selma Arts Center’s powerful production was worth the wait (Yes, I am aware of the 1981 film, and it will be watched very soon).

(Antonio Olivera III (Pachuco); Photo source: Selma Arts Center)

It’s a rare opportunity to have not just one, but two, Chicano male leads in a play that avoids spoofs and stereotypes, but rather dives into the truth, both dramatically and approachably, of the history of this very celebratory and oft-depicted culture. Antonio Olivera III’s Pachuco has a sweet balance between omnipresent narrator and direct influence on Henry Reyna’s choices and outcomes. Olivera III’s vocals are excellent and his leadership of the song-and-dance turns seem as natural as his iconic zoot suit does. Mason T. Beltran delivers a commanding performance as the focused, determined, and loyal Henry Reyna. Beltran’s harder shell never loses texture, indicating the romantic side of Henry; a romance of a future with family and a romance of love for Della Barrios. Though sidetracked by the infatuation he develops for Alice Bloomfield, Beltran is an intuitive actor who, under the no-emotion-left-unexplored direction by Guzman, gives the audience an earnest dedication to the character’s success and fight, even when being beaten over and over, thrown into solitary confinement, enduring bullish court proceedings, and being bombarded by everyone whom he cares for who simply can’t give him a minute to think.

(Annelise Escobedo Lyman (Della) and Mason T. Beltran (Henry); Photo source: Selma Arts Center)

Annelise Escobedo Lyman shines as the innocent, dedicated Della, especially in her stirring monologue of court testimony regarding the evening in question, where a member at a neighboring party was beaten to death. Jorge Romero Vaca, Adam Chavez, and Quincy Maxwell provide a strong supporting trio as “Smiley,” Joey, and Tommy, respectively. They are full of comedic moments of revelry, debauchery, and deep-seated commitment to Henry and the gang which juxtapose the tense developments well. Karina Balfour and Thomas Nance give superb supporting performances as reporter/activist Alice Bloomfield and public defender George Shear, respectively. Balfour finds a tenderness within the tenacity, which is shared genuinely and warmly opposite Beltran. Nance punches the very problems we’re still facing when condemning our Chicano teens in his closing statement in court.

Featured standout performances come from Everardo Pedraza and Dalicia Torrecillas as Henry’s parents, Enrique and Dolores Reyna, who deliver emotionally driven parents handling the home affairs by displaying their pride and tough love when protecting their kids. John Piper’s animated turn as younger Reyna brother, Rudy, finds emotional gravitas at the end of the play when the experience of the military has infiltrated his otherwise cheery, drunken demeanor. Chase Stubblefield does multi-role duty very well, with his turns at Lt. Edwards and the Judge being highlights in showing how unjust these white, male figures of authority have been, and still are. I Adeficha, Tidy Gill, and Glenda Stewart are a stellar trio of vocalists and movers, providing the tight harmonies in the score and support to Pachuco a dazzling glimmer of commentary and musicianship.

(L to R: Tidy Gill (Little Blue), Glenda Stewart (Manchuka); I Adeficha (Hoba); Photo source: Selma Arts Center)

It can’t be praised enough how well Guzman’s direction is tied together by his stylized staging choices, and embracing of the exceptional technical designs. Guzman’s choice of color palette in costuming gives pop to the brights and reds, especially the variety in beautiful zoot suits, appropriately when against the more bland, neutral tones in other characters’ wardrobes. Mindy Ramos’ vocal direction is no wasted effort with how in-sync and pleasing each song is performed. Steven Mantalvo’s choreography is well-suited for time period appropriateness while serving the story at all times. Guzman’s specific use of the Press/lawyers, doubled by the excellent pairing of Casey Ballard and Caleb Robbins, serves as a great foil to the Chicano roles who are at the mercy of the biased reporting and bullying lawyer techniques. David Esquivel’s lighting design is pinpoint precise in mood-setting and focusing the action. Dominic Grijalva and Sami Moree’s projection designs serve as a nice splash of context on Nicolette C. Andersen’s spacious, multi-leveled unit set design. Regina Harris’ complimentary sound design wraps the audience into the world of Pachuco, Reyna, and the various locales we are taken to. Lastly, but certainly not least, Garrett Ruiz’s hair and wig design is a pronounced, visual pleasure of time period pizazz for the characters, giving them even more character than what’s on the page.

Zoot Suit is a vital piece of theatre, regardless of your ethnic identity. It’s a script that demands your thoughts to be challenged and asks you to re-think what biases you have, whether you’re aware of them or not. When (not if) you see Zoot Suit, I implore you to do something different and begin reading your program at the back. A rare treat of dramaturgy comes from Lia Christine Dewey, which helps contextualize the play by bringing you into the right mindset an audience member should have prior to Pachuco’s opening monologue. With a play so powerful, prevalent, and poignant, Dewey’s dramaturgy is required reading, as this play is required viewing for our Central Valley audiences. Go see this show!

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