Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 456

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...

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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 actor in the same role in the theatre. The film's success was largely attributed to Valdez's artful weaving of filmed stage scenes and the more cinematically realized scenes. It won first place at the Cartagena Film Festival in Columbia in 1982 and the San Francisco Bay Critics award for best musical in 1983.

However, after the initial excitement, and for a decade after its release, critics accused Valdez of "selling out," of presenting stereotypical female characters with zero self initiative, and designing his productions to please Anglo audiences. In the face of such criticism, Valdez maintained his composure, as indicated by his response to David Savran who interviewed Valdez for American Theatre in 1988: "That [the accusation of selling out] doesn't bother me in the least. There's too much to do, to be socially conscious about.... In some ways it's just people sounding me out.... People help to keep you on course. I've strayed very little from my pronounced intentions."

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