Cal State LA Alumna Snags Role in Award-Winning Musical, “Zoot Suit”
“Zoot Suit” revival sheds new light on criminal bias “taped” on Mexican American youth in 1940s
March 28, 2017
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After a 39-year hiatus, the hit Broadway musical “Zoot Suit” returns to the Mark Taper Forum for another successful run. Since its opening in 1978, “Zoot Suit” has remained a keystone of Chicano theatre. Written by American playwright Luis Valdez, the play was not only the first Chicano/Latino work to be represented on Broadway, but also the first time Chicano and Latino actors were afforded the opportunity to perform on mainstage.
This year, celebrating the 50th anniversary of LA’s signature theater non-profit, Center Theatre Group (CTG), “Zoot Suit” sets another first – its first Los Angeles revival at the very theater that gave it life.
The play centers around the trial of Henry Reyna, a pachuco who is sentenced to life in prison, along with three other members of his gang, the 38th street group. Reyna’s character is based on the real-life figure, Hank Leyvas, who was similarly convicted of first-degree manslaughter in the Sleepy Lagoon murder case.
Highlighting the unfair nature of Leyvas’ trial, playwright Valdez addresses the manner in which Leyvas and his fellow defendants were done a massive injustice by the very institution that promotes fairness and equality.
“Zoot Suit” also branches off to provide a larger commentary on the heated racial fights between white servicemen and Mexican American youth. The Zoot Suit riots of 1943, though now a piece of history, live on in our collective memory and modern conception of Los Angeles.
In their ongoing mission to educate Cal State LA students on topics of diversity in LA, the Honors College brought students from two classes, HNRS 1200 and 1300, to see the production free of charge. Over sixty students in total attended performances on two separate days. Numerous faculty and staff also accompanied these Honors College students, including the chair of the Communication Studies department, Dr. David Olsen.
Dr. Olsen, who is an avid supporter of the performing arts, was thoroughly impressed with the relevance of the play. “Although it was set in the 1940s, I was surprised at how timely the play was—both as a piece of theatre and in the themes. I was also surprised at how much music was in the play—one could almost say it was a musical,” he said.
Far from new to the play, Dr. Olsen had attended the Reel Rasquache Film Festival in 2009, at which Luis Valdez was honored with the Reel Rasquache Career Achievement Award. As part of the ceremony, members of the original “Zoot Suit” cast dropped by to visit and watch a screening of the “Zoot Suit” film.
Though known for his honest and sometimes harsh reviews, the 2017 revival seemed to live up to his expectations. “I thought the acting was strong. I was especially happy to see Cal State LA Communication Studies alum, Ashley Campuzano, who plays Elena, in the production. It reminded of how interdisciplinary Communication is as a field.”
It’s true. Graduating from Cal State LA in 2015, Campuzano moved on to continue her already blooming acting career, starring in the Full Circle and in the TV show East Los High, an ongoing teen drama focusing on Latinx life in East Los Angeles.
Serving as an understudy, Campuzano happened to be performing the day Dr. Olsen went to see the show.