Trust me on this.
It is an ineffably deflating moment in the theater when you drop into your seat, you open your program and you find, inserted inside it, a narrow slip of paper announcing that at the performance you are about to witness – and have paid full price to attend – there will be five understudies.
The slip of paper goes, “This is unprecedented. The previous record for understudies was two. We slips of paper keep track of these things. And by the way, have an enjoyable evening in the theater.”
I hate snarky slips of paper, don’t you?
Did I enjoy the production of Zoot Suit regardless? (Generating a truly inspiring blog post.) Not as much as I’d hoped to. (Generating this blog post instead. And a wish that I had seen the groundbreaking Zoot Suit debut in 1978.)
The explanation for my less than enthusiastic reaction could, at least to some degree, have been the result of the five understudies. But there was, I believe, significantly more to it than that.
So what was it?
Well, for one reason… You know, my daughter Anna sometimes tells stories I have told her about me, and as gifted a storyteller as she is, it is not the same as when I tell those stories or when she tells stories about herself, second-hand stories lacking
the brightening spark of “I was there” authenticity.
The Zoot Suit I saw felt, to me, like a worshipful Zoot Suit “Tribute Band”, missing the experiential immediacy of the original participants, who may themselves not have experienced the original “Zoot Suit” phenomenon, at least not as adults, but they were considerably closer to the era.
These guys may have heard the story. But none of them lived it.
I understand “speaking-to-the-political-moment” reason for reviving Zoot Suit in 2017. As the “Defense Attorney” laments in his closing summation at a trial which the press sensationalized and the politicians exploited for personal advancement:
“I have tried my best to defend what is most precious in our American Society – a society now at war against the forces of racial intolerance and totalitarian injustice.”
It rings kind of a contemporary bell, doesn’t it?
Zoot Suit (written by Luis Valdez, who directed this production) is reminiscent – and possibly inspired by –the Bertolt Brecht-style of plays I once studied and performed in at the UCLA Summer Theater Workshop when I was 21. The production deliberately reminds us that we are watching a play, intended to create less an emotional bond with the characters than to make the audience think. (And hopefully consequently take meaningful action.)
This “representational” intention is immediately conveyed by the show’s narrator (and sometimes participant) “El Pachuco”, who introduces the performance by announcing:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the play you are about to see is a construct of fact and fantasy.”
Meaning, “Don’t take the specifics literally. You are entering the ‘Theater of Ideas.’”
That same message is reprised at the end of the evening when “El Pachuco” offers an array of contrasting scenarios of how the “Lead Character” wound up, ranging from “He died a drug addict” to “He died a war hero, winning the Congressional Medal of Honor.”
Again encouraging us to ignore the “individual” identifying directly with the humanitarian outrage.
Zoot Suit undeniably caused me to think. Although perhaps not about what the playwright might have primary wanted me to.
Instead, my mind turned to a lesser character in the production, the trial’s presiding judge who – in the play at least, and possibly in reality as well although perhaps not as dramatically blatantly – rigged the trial, via his unbalanced rulings against the innocent defendants.
I wondered how a person – and a judge no less, sworn to uphold the law – could ever behave in that manner?
It occurred to me as I was thinking that people doing arguably terrible things believe they have justifiable reasons for doing so. To wit, (imagining the judge’s thinking process):
“These ‘Zoot Suiters’ may actually be innocent. But we have to send a message to their compatriots who aren’t, thereby saving our imperiled and teetering society. There are always ‘Casualties of War.’ But we must remember that it is a war and, acknowledging the possible abandonment of some legal ‘niceties’, the overriding objective is to win!’”
(See Also: Donald Trump and the “Central Park Jogger” defendants.)
That’s what I was thinking about – the rationalization of inexcusable behavior. I mean, on its surface, it is a reasonable rationalization: Who’s against saving an imperiled and teetering society? Armed with this bolstering justification these perpetrators of evil can sleep comfortably in his beds. While our Constitutional’s framers roll over in their separate but equally incredulous under-homes.
Anyway, this revival of Zoot Suit, though not entirely successful as a dramatic production did succeed in getting me to think.
Which is more than I can say about any recent movies I have seen.
I mean, it’s not like those movies didn’t get me thinking. The thought foremost in my mind:
“When is this going to be over?”