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Evolving Stages

From the Center Theatre Group Archives


(L-R) Gordon Davidson, Luis Valdez, and Cesar Chavez in 1978.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

In honor of our 50th Anniversary, we are mining our archives for gems that highlight important and interesting moments from throughout Center Theatre Group’s history. The following is an excerpt from a note by Founding Artistic Director Gordon Davidson in the program for the 1978 World premiere of Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum. With Zoot Suit back onstage at the Taper January 31 – March 19, 2017, revisit why and how this play developed at Center Theatre Group originally and its initial impact on Los Angeles. Explore more moments in our history on our digital timeline.

Zoot Suit is a good example of the Taper’s dedication to the past and the future, and of the evolutionary process between the two. On the one hand Zoot Suit is the latest in a series of plays to move from developmental work in the Forum/Lab or the New Theatre for Now series, as part of which an earlier version of Zoot Suit was seen last spring. This is simply the most recent example of our nurturing American playwrights and our desire to prolong, when possible, the ephemeral life of a stage play by allowing it a second chance to develop and to find a new audience.

But Zoot Suit is also an entirely new kind of Taper play. It is the first in what we hope will be a series of works about Los Angeles—its social, cultural, and political history. While we have always attempted to make the Taper a theatre center for the entire community, Zoot Suit is perhaps the clearest indication yet of our commitment to the people and history of all Los Angeles. In the months and years ahead we will continue our effort to understand our role in the life of the city—and expand the role whenever possible.

Like many of you, I am not a native of this part of the country. I assumed, for some time, that Los Angeles had no real history—or, at least, none that was particularly interesting. There seemed to be so much emphasis on the here and now and the tomorrows that there was no time or place for the past. I was uninformed.

The cast of Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum in 1978.

Zoot Suit is loosely based on the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Mystery of 1942 and the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. When announcing this project last year, I suggested that these events were a largely unknown and neglected aspect of Los Angeles history. If this was accurate at the time, it is so no longer. The New Theatre for Now production of the play indicated that Zoot Suit has touched what might be called the collective unconscious of all Los Angeles. People seem to know, at least subliminally, about Sleepy Lagoon. While the exact details of that stormy period may have been forgotten, it still conjures up distinct images and intense feelings. The skeleton the play removes from the closet is fully clothed—in a zoot suit, of course.

The story behind the production of each play, its history, is also a fascinating one. Productions are suggested by directors, by agents, by our literary department, and by our familiarity with dramatic literature and works performed at other theatres around the country and the world. The reasons for presenting a particular play and its development from page to stage are seldom repeated from one production to the next. While all plays and productions change as they grow, the evolution of Zoot Suit has been particularly interesting. (Those of you who saw the earlier production can compare two stages of this development. Your presence at that production, and your reactions to it, contributed in an important way to the work you will see today!)

About a year ago I heard on the radio the story of the Zoot Suit Riots. That story, interesting in its own right, also seemed a possible dramatic subject, and one that might fit into my plans to commission plays about Los Angeles. Several days later I met with Luis Valdez about the possibility of his writing a play for us, and the Zoot Suit Riots were mentioned. As early as 1968 Luis had considered writing a play on the subject. Our meeting rekindled his interest, and the Taper commissioned Zoot Suit (thanks, in large part, to the generosity of a playwriting grant from the Rockefeller Foundation).

Like other historical events that pass into folklore, the murder trial and Zoot Suit Riots have become a kind of myth—a mixture of fact and fancy certain to elicit strong feelings when examined from any of a variety of perspectives. Luis has interpreted the events and aura of that era while focusing on the quandary of one young man. Because mere "facts" never speak clearly for themselves, Luis has consistently worked from the historical incidents toward the creation of a wholly theatrical and artistic work. Zoot Suit is a play of the imagination framed by, not rigidly fettered by, the actual events of the period.

(L-R) Rose Portillo, Daniel Valdez, Evelina Fernandez (partially seen), Edward James Olmos, Rachel Levario, and Mike Gomez in the World premiere of Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Jay Thompson

While Zoot Suit says much about relationships between Anglos and Chicanos—or rather, implies much—it is also a play about the search for identity, about rebellion against respectability, about the clash between generations in a Chicano family, and the clash between cultures in the society as a whole, about xenophobia during the early 1940s, about the war throughout the world—and the one in the barrios—about the power of the press, about cultural schizophrenia in a time of stress, about hysteria, racism, and the creation of stereotypes as a short-cut to understanding, and about the roles individuals assume in everyday life, then play out regardless of the consequences. Zoot Suit is as rich as it is varied. Seemingly limited to Los Angeles and the 1940s, it is really about the entire country throughout its history.

The association of Luis Valdez with the Taper has been extraordinary. The entire staff has felt the warmth of his presence. He has used the rehearsal process as well as anyone I have ever known, and has fully welcomed the support and assistance of his actors, designers, technicians, and the administrative and production staffs. The results of this cooperation are evident, I think, in the production we offer you. Luis has a unique capacity to use all of the theatre’s resources, and in so doing has taught all of us something about the art we so often call collaborative, but that too often is not. For his humanity, talent, and friendship, I am deeply grateful.

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