Zoot Suit (play)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Zoot Suit
Zoot Suit play.jpg
1979 Broadway Playbill
Music Daniel Valdez and Lalo Guerrero
Lyrics Lalo Guerrero
Book Luis Valdez
Basis The Sleepy Lagoon murder trial
Productions 1979 Broadway
1981 film

Zoot Suit is a play written by Luis Valdez, featuring incidental music by Daniel Valdez and Lalo Guerrero, the "father of Chicano music." Zoot Suit is based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial – when a group of Chicano youths were charged with a murder that they did not commit – and the Zoot Suit Riots.

Debuting in 1979, Zoot Suit was the first Chicano play on Broadway. In 1981, Luis Valdez also directed a filmed version of the play.


Zoot Suit opens with the entrance of El Pachuco, an allegorical character of the Chicano sub-culture of the same name. Pachuco uses his switchblade knife to cut through the newspaper backdrop and dons his zoot suit. He addresses the audience, drawing attention to his role as an actor in the play and defining the Pachuco. The scene then transforms to a barrio dance, where Pachuco sings as the 38th Street Gang dances. Sirens sound as police officers storm into the dance and arrest the pachucos.

After line up photos are taken, Henry Reyna, the 38th Street Gang leader, waits for questioning. He confides in El Pachuco that he was supposed to report to the Navy the next day.The police enter and Henry is interrogated by Lt. Edwards and Sgt. Smith about the gang fight at Sleepy Lagoon that past Saturday, where José Williams was murdered. Henry refuses to cooperate and insists he has never heard of the victim, so Sgt. Smith resorts to violence in an attempt to get Henry to talk. Henry is beaten with a rubber strap until he falls unconscious on the floor. El Pachuco begins to sing, and Henry flashes back to the night of the Sleepy Lagoon murder. Henry is at home watching his mother, Delores, hang newspaper sheets on the clothesline as he prepares to go to a dance with his date, Della. They are soon joined onstage by Lupe, Henry's scantily clad sister, and his father, Enrique. Enrique orders Lupe to change and discusses throwing a party to send Henry off to the Navy the next day. Once Rudy enters, he, Lupe, Henry, and Della leave for the party, after being told by Enrique not to let Rudy drink. Henry and Della begin to dance as El Pachuco sings and the rest of the group exits the stage. Joey castro, Smiley Torres, and Tommy Roberts—members of the 38th Street Gang—enter the scene as Henry and Della embrace.

The scene changes and El Pachuco exits with Della. The Press, Cub Reporter, and Alice enter with Lt. Edwards and begin interviewing the cop about the Sleepy Lagoon Murder case. The next scene opens after the reporters exit. Henry, Joey, Smiley, and Tommy are joined by George Shearer, a lawyer hired for the boys' case. The boys are suspicious of George, fearful he is a cop is disguise, but after George tells them they are subject to a mass trial where they will be charged with murder the boys are willing to cooperate. Gerorge proves he can be trusted by speaking Spanish, and Henry begins to tell him what happened the night leading up to the murder. The scene flashes back to the barrio dance. The 38th Street Gang has gathered together for the dance when the Downey Gang enters. Suddenly a fight breaks out between Downey Gang's Rafas and Rudy, who has been drinking. Both sides join the fight, but Henry insists it stay between him and Rafas, who has pulled out a switchblade. El Pachuco freezes the scene and persuades Henry to not to kill Rafas. Once El Pachuco snaps his fingers to unfreeze the scene, Henry kicks Rafas and the Downey Gang out of the dance. Rafas leaves, only after issuing a threat of later violence. Della asks Henry what will happen in the Downey Gang returns. He replies that they will have to kill them.

The scene returns to the present where the Press enters with the headlines of the day. The news revolves around the developments of WWII and the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial, which opens the following day. George comes to visit Henry in jail, bringing Alice with him. After discovering that Henry has not been given the clothes he was approved, George exits to find out why, leaving Henry and Alice alone. Alice introduces herself as a reporter for the Daily People's World. She attempts to interview Henry, who quickly becomes angry. Seeing he is upset, Alice begins again, this time approaching Henry from the position of a friend. She asks Henry if he is guilty, to which he honestly confides he had nothing to do with the murder. George returns with news that Henry is being refused clean clothes and he will have to address the matter in court.

In court twenty-two members of the 38th Street Gang are on trial. All have been denied clean clothes and haircuts. George tries to call attention to the court that this is a ploy to make the boys appear foreign. The Judge ignores the argument, insisting that the hair is necessary for proper identification and that the court will not discriminate against the dirty clothes. George is then deprived of being able to move to speak to his clients who are not seated near him. Additionally, the boys must stand when their names are mentioned, which George argues is self-incriminating. Della is called to the witness stand and begins to recount what occurred at Sleepy Lagoon the night of the murder.

The scene flashes back. Della and Henry drive up to Sleepy Lagoon and they take a walk. They hear a party going on at the nearby Williams ranch. Henry and Della discuss the future and he asks her to marry him. Another car drives up, filled with Rafas and other members of the Downey Gang. They begin to break the windows on Henry's car. Henry goes to fight the gang, but is knocked unconscious. Once Henry wakes up in Della's arms, they go back to town to bring back the rest of the 38th Street Gang. Once they were back at Sleepy Lagoon, there was no sign of the Downey Gang, for they had gone to terrorize the party at the Williams ranch and then left. Seeing no one at the Lagoon, the 38th Street Gang decides to crash the Williams party. The Williams are afraid the Downey Gang is returning, so they attack the 38th Street Gang. Everyone was fighting, and Henry told everyone to leave. Della saw a man beating another man with a large stick and Henry yelled for him to stop, but he did not. Della said the group was unaware that a man had died. The scene shifts back to the trial, where Press, serving as the prosecuting attorney, interrogates Della with leading questions. Once the prosecution finishes questioning Della, the judge orders her into the a girls school for a year. Court is placed in recess until the next day and George attempts to reassure Henry by telling him they can win the trial on appeal, due to the misconduct of the judge. Court resumes and the boys are found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

Act two opens inside San Quintin prison. The boys receive letters from Alice regarding their case and they develop a friendly rapport. However, Henry does not feel confident of Alice's efforts and says he is dropping out of the appeal. Alice tells him is he drops out, he will destroy their case. Once Henry sees how passionate Alice is about pursuing justice for the boys, he consents to continue with the appeal. Later, George comes to visit with news that he has been drafted and will no longer be able to handle the case. He assures the boys that there is a capable group of lawyers working on the case.

After George leaves, the boys are reassigned to work in the jute mill. Henry protests that they were supposed to work in the mess hall and refuses to go. The guard pushes Henry and Henry pushes him back. Henry is then placed in solitary confinement for three months. Left alone with EL Pachuco, Henry is confronted with loneliness and the unlikeliness that he will regain freedom. He tells El Pachuco to leave him and El Pachuco takes the scene back to Henry's barrio.

Zoot suits in 1942

Back in Los Angeles, the Navy is in town at a dance with pachucos. Rudy is out with Lupe and Bertha. The sailors try to flirt with the girls and Rudy defends them. Rudy pulls a knife on three sailors and El Pachuco freezes the scene. El Pachuco sends Rudy, Lupe, and Bertha offstage and takes Rudy's position in front of the angry sailors. The Press enters and along with the servicemen begins to insult Pachuco and the zoot suit. The military men fight El Pachuco, strip him of his clothes, and beat him to the ground. The scene shifts back to the prison. Alice has sent many letters to Henry and is concerned because he has not replied. She discovered he has been in solitary and is furious. Henry is finally released from solitary and Alice reassures him that they can win the case. Henry asks Alice to love him. She claims it will only complicate things. Henry becomes offended and claims that race is the issue keeping them apart. Alice slaps him, then kisses him. Once Alice leaves, Henry addresses El Pachuco, who is not present. He tells him his hope has been renewed.

The scene shifts back to Los Angeles, where Rudy has joined the Marines. WWII is drawing to a close. As the headlines are shouted out, it is announced that the boys involved in the Sleepy Lagoon murder case won their appeal and are now free. Henry's family and friends gather together to celebrate in thebarrio. Henry and El Pachuco are reunited. Back at home and with Della, Henry is forced to choose between his promise to marry Della and his love for Alice. Alice, feeling like the only one out of place, encourages Henry to be with Della. Henry tells Della that he has nothing to offer her, but he loves her. Rudy confronts Henry, asking him why he did not tell anyone he was at Sleepy Lagoon. Henry tells him he was protecting him from a criminal record. Joey comes in wearing a zoot suit. Rudy tells him the zoot suit is dead and he will be skinned alive if he goes out dress in one. Joey tries to leave with Bertha, but Rudy refuses to let him. They begin to fight, but are pulled apart. Rudy confides in Henry that he was ganged up on my the sailors and Marines who beat him and stripped him of his zoot suit. The brothers hug and are interrupted by Tommy. Tommy yells that the police are trying to arrest Joey for stealing their car. Henry tries to go help, but Enrique keeps him back. The family hugs. The characters provide several scenarios of how Henry's life ends and the play ends with the characters stating who Henry Reyna is to them.[1]

Production history[edit]

Stage debut[edit]

Zoot Suit premiered at The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles on April, 1978.[2] This production with Center Theatre Group marked the first professionally produced Chicano play.[3] The initial ten day run in April sold out in two days. An audience of season ticket holders and local Mexican-Americans gave standing ovations each evening of the performances at the Mark Taper Forum. A second run began in August and tickets sold out yet again. [4] This extended run was held at the Aquarius Theatre, Los Angeles.[5]

Broadway production[edit]

The Broadway production debuted at the Winter Garden Theater on March 25, 1979, and closed on April 29 after 41 performances. The production was directed by Luis Valdez and was noted for Edward James Olmos' portrayal of El Pachuco, a mythical figure that acts as a sort of Greek chorus to the action.

Zoot Suit was the second Latino written and directed play produced on Broadway, coming second only to Miguel Piñero's Short Eyes in 1974. While Short Eyes won two Obies, as well as the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play, Zoot Suit ran a mere five weeks on Broadway.[6]

30th anniversary production[edit]

In April 2008, Alma Martinez, member of the original 1978 cast of Zoot Suit directed the 30 year anniversary production at Pomona College in Claremont, California. This was the first time since its stage debut in 1978 that Zoot Suit had been produced in the Los Angeles area. The two week run managed to sell out prior to opening night, despite minimal advertisement, primarily in Latino publications. Many outreach opportunities were taken, including an alumni night, a staff appreciation performance, matinees allowing over 1,000 high school students to attend, and the development of a study guide for students attending the performances.

The alumni event featured a reunion of original 1978 cast members, as well as members of the film version of Zoot Suit. Luis Valdez and Alice McGrath, the community activist on whom Valdez based the character Alice, were given awards. Also in the audience were members of the family of Henry Leyvas, on whom Henry Reyna was based.

In casting the revival, Martinez cast across the Claremont University Consortium in search of Latino students. All of the Chicano roles featured actors making their stage debut, and the majority of the cast was composed of non-theatre majors. Assistant director Shakina Nayfack modified the script to reduce homophobic and sexist language where possible. Martinez cast a female in the traditionally male role of the Press.[7]


  1. ^ Valdez, Luis (2009). "Zoot Suit". In Jacobus, Lee A. The Bedford Introduction to Drama (Sixth ed.). New York: Bedford/St. Martin's. pp. 1256–1288. 
  2. ^ Galens, ed., David M. (2007). Drama for students vol. 5. Detroit: Gale. p. 279. 
  3. ^ Lucas, Ashley (Spring 2009). "Reinventing the Pachuco". Journal for the Study of Radicalism 3 (1): 61,63. Retrieved 24 March 2015. (subscription required)
  4. ^ Galens, ed., David M. (2007). Drama for students vol. 5. Detroit: Gale. p. 279. 
  5. ^ Aaron, Jules (May 1979). "Reviewed Work: Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez". Theatre Journal 31 (2): 263. Retrieved 31 March 2015. (subscription required)
  6. ^ Lucas, Ashley (Fall 2009). "Prisoners on the Great White Way: Short Eyes and Zoot Suit as the First US Latina/o Plays on Broadway". Latin American Theatre Review 43 (1): 121. 
  7. ^ Nayfack, Shakina (Fall 2009). "Que le watcha los cabrones: Marking the 30th Anniversary of Luis Valdez's "Zoot Suit"". TDR 53 (3): 162–9. Retrieved 31 March 2015. (subscription required)

External links[edit]