The first Chicano play on Broadway, Zoot Suit incorporates bilingual dialogue and alienated Mexican Americans. The play grew out of California Chicano guerrilla theater. Luis Miguel Valdez questions newspaper accounts of the Los Angeles zoot-suit-Columbus Day riots and the related Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial (1942). The drama uses song, dance, and a unifying narrative based on the traditions of the Mexican corrido (a ballad form that often reflects on social issues). Newspapers described zoot-suiters knifing and killing until stopped by the U.S. Navy and Marines and deservingly imprisoned (“Police Nab 300 in Roundup”); Valdez contrasts this yellow journalism with a very different reality: lively, harmless singing and dancing interrupted by police violence (“Marines and Sailors . . . stomping like Nazis on East L.A.”), mass arrests, and brutal police interrogations.
A zoot-suiter “master of ceremonies” called Pachuco narrates the action, dispelling illusion, showing reality, and providing flashbacks that characterize the protagonist, Henry Reyna, who is vilified in the white media, as heroic. This defiant, existential street actor wears the colors of Testatipoka, the Aztec god of education.
Reyna, a loyal American about to ship out for the war in the Pacific, becomes a scapegoat for the Los Angeles police. When a minor scuffle with a rival gang interrupts his farewell celebration with his girlfriend, he bravely...
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A large newspaper hangs in place of a curtain. Its large bold print reads Zoot Suiter Hordes Invade Los Angeles and US Navy and Marines Are Called In. The narrator, El Pachuco, dressed in his traditional zoot suit, enters from behind the newspaper, ripping it with his switchblade. Speaking in English and Spanish, he tells the audience how every Chicano fantasizes about putting on a zoot suit. He also cautions the audience that the play is both fact and fantasy.
El Pachuco is next seen singing at a barrio dance. The members of the Thirty-eighth Street Gang are present, including Henry Reyna, a twenty-one-year-old Chicano who is the leader of the gang, and his girlfriend, Della Barrios. A rival group, the Downey Gang, comes into the dance hall. Harsh words are exchanged, and at that moment, the police arrive and detain those at the dance hall. Lieutenant Edwards and Sergeant Smith arrest Henry. It is Monday, August 2, 1942.
Alone in a room at the police station, Henry and El Pachuco have a conversation. El Pachuco comments to Henry about the problems facing zoot-suiters. He tells Henry that the war is not overseas but on his own home turf, and he reminds Henry of Chicano pride. Edwards and Smith want Henry to confess to the murder of Jose Williams at Sleepy Lagoon; they believe that Henry is guilty of the crime. They interrogate him, but Henry does not talk.
Sergeant Smith beats Henry unconscious, and the scene shifts to Henry’s home on the Saturday night of the dance. Henry tries to reassure his mother, who fears his wearing the zoot suit because of all the trouble zoot-suiters have been having with the police. Henry pays no attention although the newspaper headlines are reporting a Mexican crime wave.
The scene shifts back to the present. Henry and his friends are angry and worried because they have been accused of murder. They all agree not to squeal on one another. George Shearer, an...
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Zoot Suit, though perhaps Valdez’s most commercial play, retains the political spirit of the early actos and anticipates the struggle for Chicano identity of Valdez’s later works. Because it is a musical, with terrific song and dance throughout, it is his most conventionally entertaining play, but because it dramatizes an overlooked episode in American history that reveals a pervasive racism against Chicanos, it is also one of his most powerful and socially relevant plays.
Set in Los Angeles in the early 1940’s, the play centers around the trial and wrongful murder conviction of Henry Reyna and three other Chicano gang members, or pachucos. Act 1 explores the trial and, through flashback, the violence that leads up to it; act 2 deals with the efforts to appeal the conviction and free the pachucos. Throughout the play, Valdez gives the action an added dimension through the use of two extraordinary devices. One is the mythic figure of El Pachuco. He is larger than life, the zoot-suiter par excellence, the embodiment of Chicano pride, machismo, and revolutionary defiance. He dominates the play, though he is seen only by Henry and the audience. Indeed, he may be understood as a layer of Henry’s personality externalized, a kind of alter ego who continually advises Henry and comments on, at times even controls, the play. The second device is El Pachuco’s counterpart and antagonist, The Press. In Zoot Suit, the news...
(The entire section is 603 words.)