(Please credit Jordan Kubat Photography)
Written by Alina Mae Wilson
I just watched an amazing play called Zoot Suit. Prior to this performance, I had never heard of the Zoot Suit Riots or Henry Leyvas- the man upon whom the central character is based. After watching Zoot Suit at Santa Ana College, I immediately raced home to bombard Google with searches about the riots and Henry Leyvas, which led to me to gasping over my ignorance on the subject. How could something like the Zoot Suit Riots happen in my home state, in nearby Los Angeles to be exact, without me knowing about it? How could the subject of Henry Leyvas’s (and many other people’s) false arrest and imprisonment not be broached a single time during all my years of education?
Henry (re-surnamed “Reynas” in the play) is a young Chicano man living in Los Angeles. He has a family that loves him, friends that respect him, and a girlfriend who is committed to him. He also has a troubled history with the LAPD. When a man is killed in a fight, the police department seizes the opportunity to crack down on what they perceive to be the out-of-control Pachuco lifestyle and arrest Henry and his friends for a murder they did not commit. What follows is a story about open societal depravity and the powerful spirit of a man who becomes our hero.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a play and was grabbed so instantaneously. From the moment El Pachuco (played by Miguel Perez) made his entrance I was hooked. The life was electric; the actors were spot on, and the energy was contagious. Adam Mendez as Henry Reyna was easy to love. Whether he was stoic or passionate, I rooted for him. Speaking of passion, the chemistry between him and his girlfriend Della (played by Alessandra Mañon) was beautiful. Mañon was almost addictive to watch in her role as the supportive and sympathetic love interest, and I can honestly say she was the character who stole my heart (right after Reynas).
The story is fascinating for both the actual history involved and the way it is presented. I wouldn’t consider this a musical, although some songs are performed every now and then. The songs are there to support the actual plot development but don’t ricochet around in your head on your way home. I can’t remember any of the music, but I remember quite clearly what was happening while it was playing. Although you feel shame and outrage while watching Henry endure abuse, this play is not entirely a tragedy. In my opinion, it is more interested in depicting resilience and strength rather than grief and sorrow. At the beginning of the show, they mentioned the audience will feel “transported,” and I certainly was.
Zoot Suit is utterly successful at instilling feelings of pride, joy, shock, and even some humor. This story will have you hooked long after you go home.
August 8 -18,2019
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August 20, 2019, 5:10 am
Note: Actors smoking onstage often.