By Scott Rappaport. As former Los Angeles Times theater critic Sylvie Drake recently observed, "it exploded on the stage with the force of a sociopolitical A-bomb. Playing to standing-room-only crowds, it ran for a year before moving to New York to become the first play on Broadway written by a Chicano author. The result was a wave of incidents of violence against Latinos and other minorities in LA and cities across the country, which became known as the Zoot Suit Riots. Four decades after its premiere , Valdez has created a new version of the play, which just opened in February on that original Los Angeles stage.
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It was Father fished, mother made tortillas. So Luis climbed onto the big yellow bus with his fish taco lunch in a paper bag that his mother told him to bring back.
He panicked. It was his big moment. Three days before the play, however, he came home to find the family packing. Luis cried. His mother cried. And at dawn, the family climbed into a truck, and Luis watched his school recede into the valley fog. It was a heartbreak that changed his life. In and out. In September , Chavez led a strike in the Central Valley to protest low pay and poor working conditions. Chavez had important meetings.
Later, in San Francisco, he shared his thoughts with civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the farmworkers movement. She arranged a meeting between Valdez and Chavez, who was tired but supportive. Not even time to rehearse.
You still want to do it? Chavez was right about no money and no time. The workers were on the picket line, singing songs. It was raucous. What was striking about that early work was its combustion of raw energy, defiance, irony and joy. No one had spoken up so fearlessly before — not for the strike, the farmworkers nor the Latino presence in California. It was new. And it was important.
El Teatro took its cue from the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a ramshackle Vietnam-era political protest group that played parks and public places with abandon and glee. Valdez had cut his acting teeth as a member of that troupe. I traveled to Delano, saw El Teatro perform in the fields and chatted with Valdez — relaxed, chomping on his cigar, eager to discuss the future. That included moving on to full-length plays.
Visiting critics? The work was based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder and the so-called Zoot Suit riots, which rose from racial clashes and Latinos being tried, convicted and, in a reversal, released for inadequate evidence.
Valdez fictionalized the events, added music and dance, and infused the piece with allegory, including the symbolic character of El Pachuco, representing the Latino ethos. I deeply resented this imposition of a stereotype. One could argue Valdez had been right to reject Broadway. Latino theater had developed over time and provocation in California. For New Yorkers, with little such history, the style and wryness of the piece, and the culture that spawned it, were terra incognita.
We packed the house. Drake is a former theater critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times. She is a current contributor to American Theater and culturalweekly. Life in Iran: Photography exhibit tries to build a cultural bridge. Being black in America? Keith A. Get Carolina A. Miranda's weekly newsletter for what's happening, plus openings, critics' picks and more.
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"Zoot Suit" by Luis Valdez
It was Father fished, mother made tortillas. So Luis climbed onto the big yellow bus with his fish taco lunch in a paper bag that his mother told him to bring back. He panicked.
‘Zoot Suit,’ a Pioneering Chicano Play, Comes Full Circle
Zoot Suit is a film adaptation of the Broadway play Zoot Suit. Both the play and film were written and directed by Luis Valdez. Many members of the cast of the Broadway production also appeared in the film. Like the play, the film features music from Daniel Valdez and Lalo Guerrero , the "father of Chicano music. In , the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In Zoot Suit , Luis Valdez weaves a story involving the real-life events of the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial — when a group of young Mexican-Americans were charged with murder — resulting in the racially fueled Zoot Suit Riots throughout Los Angeles. In the play, Henry Reyna inspired by real-life defendant Hank Leyvas is a pachuco gangster and his gang, who were unfairly prosecuted, are thrown in jail for a murder they did not commit.
‘Zoot Suit’: How Latino theater born in the farm fields changed L.A. theater forever
Much of the cast had scant acting experience. The story itself was a Brechtian take on a relatively obscure unsolved murder in Los Angeles; its climax involved a humiliating assault on a Latino man by racist United States servicemen. Just a decade earlier, its writer and director, Luis Valdez, was creating short skits for audiences of striking farmworkers in the fields of the Central Valley in California. But audiences kept coming, and coming, selling out show after packed show. Fans came one week and returned with their families the next; Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead is said to have seen the play 22 times.
'Zoot Suit' still relevant four decades later
Scroll down for dates and ticketing information. Now, in , Valdez has created a new version of the play which opened in March at the Taper Forum to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Center Theatre Group. The revival was held over three times due to demand. UC Santa Cruz will be the first academic theater in the world to produce this new script.