Scott Marks 2:48 p.m., May 23
Director Kirsten Brandt, choreographer Javier Velasco, and a huge cast are giving Luis Valdez's drama with music a splendid revival.
Zoot Suit was the first Chicano play ever performed on Broadway (1979). Its critical reception was almost as brutal as its subject. The Great White Way wasn't ready for sleek Vatos decked in "drapes" - knee-length coats, tight trouser cuffs, high waists, wide-brimmed hats - telling a non-Gringo version of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder and the Zoot Suit Riots.
The play lasted five weeks. Samuel French refused to publish the script.
On the morning of August 2, 1942, the body of Jose Diaz lay on a dirt road not far from Sleepy Lagoon (near Bell, California). The coroner said the wounds suggested an auto accident. Eager for a scapegoat, and flamed by William Randolph Hearst's newspapers, police arrested members of the 38th Street Club.
Amid wartime hysteria that would soon exile over 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast to "relocation centers," the mass trial convicted 22 defendants, 12 to San Quentin.
Like the railroaded convictions of the "Scottsboro Boys" in the East, the trial drew nationwide attention - so much, in fact, that charges were eventually dismissed.
The "Zoot Suit Riots" lasted a week in early June, 1943 - and qualify as the most one-sided "riot" in California history. Sailors on leave, and later Marines, viciously attacked Latinos and others wearing anything that resembled the now infamous outfit.
Zoot Suit's a tapestry of these events. Valdez weaves fact and fantasy through the story of Henry Reyna (based on Hank Leyvas, leader of the 38th Street group), who was to leave for the Navy in the morning.
Fiercely committed Lakin Valdez does a masterful job as Henry, to whom everyone turns when things fall apart. He's hounded by enough Furies for a Greek tragedy.
The fantasy: El Pachuco (smooth, sly Raul Cardona) dons the drapes and becomes the iconic Zoot Suiter: a director/stage manager who snaps his fingers to speed up time, and Henry's dual alter-ego - best friend and worst enemy - who already knows the story.
Cardona sings most of the numbers, accompanied by a back-up trio or a stage filled with whirling dancers, handball players, or battling enemies.
The ensemble cast brims with talent. Among them: James Newcomb's sympathetic lawyer, George Shearer, Jo Anne Glover's Alice Bloomfield (based on the extraordinary Alice McGrath), Herbert Siquenza (the Press), Mark Pinter (the profoundly racist judge), John Padilla and Catalina Maynard, as Henry's parents.
David Lee Cuthbert's spare scenic design allows for full-stage spectacle, and his expressive lighting shapes intimate moments. When in motion, Mary Larson's expert costumes resemble spinning color-wheels
San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown, playing through August 12.