Through “Zoot Suit,” L.A. Theatre Engages a Community with Provocative Conversations

“Art has the power to transform our perception, attitude and behavior,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. In a city of more than 4 million people—over 10 million including all of L.A. County—affecting change through art is seemingly no small task, and yet, in this socially fragmented time, Los Angeles theatre companies are increasingly taking on that challenge, as are organizations in New York and beyond.

As a way of continuing its now 50-year tradition of connecting audiences through provocation, Center Theatre Group recently launched Community Conversations—a new program allowing audiences to explore the divisive and complex themes of productions at the Ahmanson Theatre, Mark Taper Forum and Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Beginning with Community Conversations focused on the play “Disgraced” in 2016 at the Taper, these free events have included thought leaders ranging from renowned writer Reza Aslan and Grammy winner-turned-activist Ani Zonneveld to cultural historian and MacArthur Genius Josh Kun.

On March 9, Center Theatre Group held one such conversation, “Has News Ever Been Fair and Balanced?,” which explored the topic of media bias as it relates to the revival of “Zoot Suit” at the Taper and the current lack of confidence Americans express toward news outlets.

“Zoot Suit,” a play written and directed by Luis Valdez, which made its world premiere at the Taper in 1978, portrays the infamous 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder and subsequent Zoot Suit riots in Los Angeles. The 1940s media bestowed those monikers, among others, on the events of the day—a narrative point addressed in the play through the character Press.

“Press, the personification of yellow journalism, tries to persuade the jury that Los Angeles is ‘in the midst of the biggest, most terrifying crime wave in its history. A crime wave that threatens to engulf the very foundations of our civic well-being.’ If these words sounds familiar, it’s because society is always looking for ‘bad hombres’ to scapegoat,” wrote Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles Times.

Fake news and alternative facts have been in the spotlight these past few months—NPR recently called the issue “a big problem”—but headlines that bend, stretch or completely disregard the truth are nothing new. In the 1940s, the Los Angeles press called Mexican-Americans in zoot suits “hoodlums” and “gang members,” and played a role in the conviction of the young men on trial for the Sleepy Lagoon murder and the Zoot Suit riots that followed.

“There couldn’t be a better opportunity for the arts to respond to so much nonsense and ignorance and stupidity,” actor Demian Bichir said in The New York Times about his interest in playing the role of El Pachuco in this revival.

Realizing the currency of staging “Zoot Suit” at such a significant time, and understanding that live theatre remains a space where people of all ideologies can come together to unpack complex ideas, Center Theatre Group programmed six pre-show Community Conversations throughout the play’s run.

“Community Conversations are that moment when we ask people in our community to help us make relevant the themes and ideas that are alive on our stage,” said Leslie K. Johnson, Center Theatre Group’s Director of Social Strategy, Innovation and Impact. “Asking thought leaders to come and spark that conversation is exciting. By inviting them into the room, we are able to hear someone who lives these topics every day discuss them in the context of the show.”

As Center Theatre Group’s Director of Communications, I moderated the conversation “Has News Ever Been Fair and Balanced?,” which explored the history of American journalism and whether it’s ever truly been objective. Panelists were Dr. Lisa Pecot-Hebert, a lecturer in broadcast and multimedia journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Reed Johnson, managing editor of Zocalo Public Square, and Maura Walz, KPCC’s education editor.

“Theatre has always created an extraordinary connection between artists and audiences,” said Center Theatre Group Artistic Director Michael Ritchie. “Nowhere is that more clear than in the uniquely intimate space of the Mark Taper Forum. And that connection continues well beyond the curtain call in plays like Luis Valdez’s ‘Zoot Suit.’”

You can listen to this complete Community Conversation online.

Center Theatre Group’s revival of “Zoot Suit,” presented in association with El Teatro Campesino, is onstage at the Mark Taper Forum through April 2, 2017.

I originally wrote this article for The Huffington Post.