Zoot Suit was the product of Luis Valdez's theater troupe, El Teatro Campesino, which had previously specialized in social consciousness-raising actos, that offered broad-brush depictions of farmworkers' plights. Valdez received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to research the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial so that he could create a play that would represent the experience of minorities in America. Zoot Suit's April, 1978, premiere and initial ten-day run sold out in two days. The audience consisted of season-ticket holders along with members of the Mexican-American community of Los Angeles who were eager to see Valdez's latest creation. An ad for second production in August of 1978 announced the "Second Zoot Suit Riots" and tickets again sold out. The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle honored Valdez with a best play award. The play received standing ovations every evening in Los Angeles. The following year, Valdez became the first Latino playwright to open on Broadway, and the public once again expressed its approval.
The New York critics, however, were less impressed. Richard Eder of the New York Times called the play "overblown and undernourished," and Douglas Watt of the New York Daily News condemned it as "poorly written and atrociously directed." It closed on Broadway after a disappointing four weeks. A national tour proved more successful, especially in urban areas with Mexican-American communities.
In 1980, Valdez produced a screenplay adaptation of his play under contract with Universal Pictures. The idea was to film the play live at the Aquarius Theater in Los Angeles and intersperse filmed, realistic, scenes. The film was released in 1981, having been completed on a three-million dollar budget in a mere six months. As with the stage production, Daniel Valdez played Henry, and Edward James Olmos made his film acting debut as El Pachuco, having earned his first pay as an...
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