Zoot Suit (Theater, 1978)
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Title: Actor Edward James Olmos, playwright Luis Valdez, and actor Daniel Valdez
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Zoot Suit, a play written in 1973 by Luis Valdez, is widely regarded as the most significant piece of Chicano theater. Hugely successful when it opened in Los Angeles on July 28, 1978, the play was also the first Chicano theatrical production on Broadway when it opened in New York on March 25, 1979. Its theatrical success also inspired Universal Studios to convert Zoot Suit into a film that Valdez directed in 1981. The success of Zoot Suit across ethnic, class, and cultural lines represents its significance not just in the history of Latino theater, but for American theater in general.

Regarded as the father of Chicano theater, Valdez is a playwright, actor, writer, and film director. With Zoot Suit, his best-known work, Valdez is credited with revolutionizing Chicano theater. Valdez wrote the play while associated with his theater ensemble El Teatro Campesino, which he founded in 1965 in conjunction with the United Farm Workers (UFW) strikes. Like other artists of the Chicano movement of this time period, Valdez wrote Zoot Suit as an attempt to address the history of discrimination against Mexican Americans in the United States. In Zoot Suit, Valdez combined elements of El Teatro Campesino's street theater aesthetic with professional choreography and narrative elements. Weaving together big band music, choreography, and storytelling, Zoot Suit features music by Daniel Valdez and Lalo Guerrero, who is known as the father of Chicano music. The play broke box office records when it opened the Mark Taper Forum's opening season in 1978 in Los Angeles, playing to packed houses and rave reviews. The play subsequently continued its run at the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood. The success of Zoot Suit is credited with launching the careers of a number of professional Latino/a film and theatrical artists, most notably, Edward James Olmos.

A work of historical fiction, Zoot Suit follows two significant stories of racial injustice in Los Angeles from the 1940s. Set in the streets of East Los Angeles, Zoot Suit recounts events of the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon case and the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots. These incidents became symbolic of the racial injustice against Mexican Americans in Los Angeles and across the country during this time period. The play follows Henry Reyna and members of the predominantly Mexican American 38th Street Gang, who were wrongly accused and convicted of murder. The play also treats incidents from the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, where racial tensions escalated into violent confrontations between zoot suit–wearing pachucos, U.S. servicemen, and Los Angeles law enforcement. The play is set against actual testimony from the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and press headlines from the 1940s, recounting these historical events through the eyes of a group of Mexican American youth. At the center of Zoot Suit is the character El Pachuco, an idealized zoot suiter played memorably by Olmos during the play's Los Angeles run.

Zoot Suit is recognized as a milestone not just in Chicano theater, but in the wider Chicano movement taking place in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. This political movement sought to bring greater attention to the history of exploitation and discrimination against Mexican Americans, while also reclaiming a Mexican American history and defining a Chicano identity. Zoot Suit marked a watershed moment in the Chicano movement, as its widespread success meant that issues of the Mexican American community were brought into mainstream American consciousness. Not only did the play open the door to Latino actors, but its production into a film in the 1980s marked Zoot Suit as the first Chicano written, performed, and directed feature length film in history. The play continues to be performed in revival productions in theaters across the United States today.

Lauren Gallow

Further Reading
Huerta, Jorge. Chicano Drama: Performance, Society, and Myth. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000; Alvarez, Luis. The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance During World War II. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009; Broyles-González, Yolanda. El Teatro Campesino: Theater in the Chicano Movement. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994; Huerta, Jorge, ed. Necessary Theater: Six Plays About the Chicano Experience. Studio City, CA: Players Press, 1989.


MLA Citation

"Zoot Suit (Theater, 1978)." Hispanic Heritage Month Spotlight on the Chicano Movement. ABC-CLIO, 2019. Web. 20 November 2019.

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