Zoot Suit brings to life a racially-charged trial of the 1940s, in which a group of pachucos, Mexican-American gang members, are charged and sentenced with the murder of another Mexican American. Playwright Luis Valdez depicts the trial of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder and the related Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 in a combination of docudrama, myth, and musical. Zoot Suit was designed to reach a larger audience than those targeted by the improvisational skits, or actos, he had produced for El Teatro Campesino, a theater troupe he founded to support Hispanic labor leader Cesar Chavez's efforts to unionize California farm workers during the Delano Grape Strike of 1965. Although he reached back into history for a specific Mexican-American incident, Valdez's play concerns the problems of all ethnic minorities in America.
Opening in 1978, Zoot Suit sold out every time it played in Los Angeles, though it met with less enthusiasm from critics in New York when it debuted on Broadway. In the play, the mythical character El Pachuco cajoles Henry Reyna to resist the social injustices of an unfair trial and fight for his community; he does so, but the play ends without resolving his future. With its Brechtian-style protest against social injustice and defamiliarization techniques, such that the action is controlled and re-directed by one of the characters, Zoot Suit set a new standard for Chicano theater and Valdez was recognized as a leader in American drama. A film version produced in 1981 starring Edward James Olmos and Daniel Valdez (the playwright's brother, who had played Henry in the stage production as well) brought this vivid portrayal of social injustice to movie theaters.