Treatment of the Love Relationship Between Henry and Alice

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Zoot Suit is a tightly written drama with each element contributing to its overt demand for social reform, specifically a correction of the social injustice suffered by Henry Reyna and his gang. Luis Valdez conducted thorough research on the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial of 1942 and the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 in order to present the facts responsibly, but he also wanted to present the psychological and mythical truths of the Chicano experience. As a result, his work is a combination of documentary and myth, fact and fiction, instruction and entertainment. On the whole, both the play and the later film version succeeded beautifully in accomplishing these goals, especially in the popular arena.

Criticism was leveled at Valdez's portrayal of women (stereotypical) and complaints were leveled that the playwright turned his back on his roots with the farmworker's theater and had somehow "sold out" to the expectations of Hollywood and Broadway. To this criticism, Valdez turned a deaf ear. He did admit, however, that he had to revise the story's plot between the stage and film versions to correct a flaw that misled audience members. In a 1982 interview two weeks after the opening of the film adaptation, Valdez told Roberta Orona-Cordova in Mexican-American Theatre that he struggled with his portrayal of the love affair between Henry and Alice Bloomfield. The historical Henry had fallen in love with Alice, and Valdez wanted stayed true to history in his dramatic version of the story. The inclusion of this cross-cultural affair hampered what he wanted his play to communicate, however. It alienated some members of the audience, who could not accept a white woman falling in love with a Chicano, "They didn't like the romance or the politics of it: a white woman falling in love with a pachuco." The same issue came up in another interview with Gregg Barrios, who told Valdez "The love angle between Henry and Alice Bloomfield bothered me in the play." Valdez responded:

Actually, that angle in the play got me a narrower audience, especially in the confrontation scene and when Henry makes a choice between the two girls. I think what it is that led a lot of people astray was that point. That was really not the point I intended. Again, it was the play trying to decide what it was going to say after all... when I began to transfer the play to a screenplay ... I focused more on Henry and this business with Alice was put into its proper perspective.

The affair between the historical Alice Bloomfield and Henry Leyvas (Valdez changed the name to Reyna), took place through their letters. Valdez includes fictional versions of these letters in the play, but they culminate in an intense physical encounter in the prison and the incident provides a pivotal moment in the plot. Alice's belief in Henry revitalizes his hope for release, just when he is ready to give up. Her commitment is not just to obtaining justice in his particular case but because she has "never been able to accept one person pushing another around." At that moment, they understand each other, but their rapport quickly conflates with passion.

Why is this passion bothersome or "alienating" to some members of the audience? It would be overly simplistic to dismiss these viewers' concerns as evidence of their own prejudice. There is also the matter of Henry's obligation to Della. On the eve of the arrests, Henry promised her a big "pachuco" wedding when he returns from his tour in the Navy. She is not simply awaiting him patiently at home; she shares...

(This entire section contains 1686 words.)

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his misery, having been committed to a year at the Ventura State School for Girls—a prison of sorts—for her ostensible participation in the murder. Two brief scenes before his tryst with Alice, Henry complains to El Pachuco how much he misses Della. This love relationship seems permanent: for Henry to betray Della withany other woman seems unpardonable. That he would betray her with an Anglo woman complicates matters considerably.

In addition, a love interest between Alice and Henry muddies Alice's social reform agenda: campaigning for Henry out of love is not the same as campaigning against a social injustice. Furthermore, a love interest between these two characters, a hybrid marriage, would be a form of assimilation, which the play opposes. Enrique is the model of the assimilated Mexican American; he sweeps the dirt from the city's streets but has no power to sweep away its injustices. Assimilation is a kind of acceptance of the limitations society places on Mexican Americans. Enrique's big dream is for Henry to find a way out and up; the solution seems to be Henry's enlistment in the Navy, an event that Enrique plans to celebrate in style. However, as El Pachuco reminds Henry, joining the Navy will do nothing to solve the problems of the barrio, "Forget the war overseas, carnal. Your war is on the homefront." For Henry to marry Alice is the same as his going off to the Navy: he would be joining the culture that oppresses him, not aligning himself with his own culture and fighting for a better Hispanic lifestyle.

The staging of Henry's moment of decision between Alice and Della underscores the significance of his rejection of Alice/Anglo culture and his acceptance of the war "on the homefront." Alice stands alone, while Della is surrounded by Henry's family and the gang. This blocking of characters suggests that in choosing Della, Henry chooses his own culture, with all of its perils and promise; had he chosen Alice, he would have taken an avenue out of that culture, a move away from his social responsibilities.

One reason that Alice is able to connect with Henry is their shared experience of social oppression: she is Jewish and the year is 1943, America is fighting World War II in part to free the Jews from German leader Adolf Hitler's genocidal persecution (Hitler believed that Jews and other ethnicities were inferior and a detriment to the new society he wished to build). Alice helps him to win his battle, just as the Americans are winning the war in Europe. Henry elatedly tells El Pachuco, "We won this one because we learned to fight in a new way." Alice's experience and wisdom make her an excellent steward for Henry's transition to this new frame of mind. She helps Henry advance into social adulthood—or rather humanity, since Anglo society, as represented by Sgt. Smith and Lt. Edwards, treats him like an animal.

Henry may be an "hombre"—a man—to his doting parents, but he is a "greaseball" to the police; Sgt. Smith reminds Lt. Edwards that "You can't treat these animals like people." Alice, on the other hand, asks Henry to write for her People's World newsletter. She treats him like an educated and valuable member of society whose words are significant. She can redeem him through her conviction that he is innocent and socially worthy. She is one of the few outside of his family who accept his integrity, in a world that judges him guilty of the "crime" of looking different, of adopting a defiant style of dress, the pachuco style. She presides over his transition from an animal held in solitary confinement to a man taking part in the affairs of the world. The fact that he spent ninety days—echoing nine months—in confinement hints at a kind of rebirth, as he is released from solitary confinement (a kind of womb), into his parent's home, appearing as the guest of honor, an object of celebration, like a newborn child.

El Pachuco is with Henry at the beginning of his solitary confinement, but Henry gets fed up with his alter ego's negative attitude, his constant refrain that "No court in the land's going to set you free." Henry yells, "Fuck off," and El Pachuco departs for the streets, where he takes Rudy's place in a beating, is overwhelmed by the Anglos, and stripped of his zoot suit. El Pachuco has been Henry's confidante and alter ego up to this point but now he disappears, and Henry, who has gotten used to his ubiquitous presence, asks in vain, "Are you even there anymore?" He is not, because El Pachuco has been crucified by the Anglos. This act parallels Henry's crucifixion, in the solitary confinement cell. In the very next scene, Alice takes over the guardianship of Henry from El Pachuco, appearing at the prison and expressing devotion to his cause. The transfer of mentorship has completed, and Henry will be in her hands until he returns to society, rising from the dead just as El Pachuco rises after his beating.

El Pachuco rises wearing a hybrid of icons: the Christian cross and an Aztec loincloth; Henry rises from his incarceration witnessed by a Jewish mother archetype. At this point, Alice's job is finished, so El Pachuco reappears. With a snap of his fingers (signaling that he has resumed control of the play), El Pachuco speaks of the tentativeness of Henry's new social standing. He is not free, he is merely back in the barrio, with all of its prejudice and injustice. Henry's is the only voice that does not recite a version of his future—because he has so little control over it. Alice has raised this man from incarceration only to put him back into the same vicious cycle of ethnic oppression and injustice.

Alice's faith in Henry is a mark of her own integrity, making her a role model for the audience. This is revolutionary theater, not mere entertainment, and Valdez wants the audience to learn from her example. In this respect, Alice's guardianship over Henry would be complete and actually more effective without the love affair. Valdez realized this, and when he wrote the screenplay for Zoot Suit, he downplayed their passion. In its place he emphasized Alice's human compassion. The shift away from love to humanitarianism is at once more acceptable to the audience and more focused on the central issue of social injustice in this play.

Source: Carole Hamilton for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

Historical Events that Shape Valdez's Play

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A year or so back, Luis Valdez, founder-director of El Teatro Campesino—an agitprop group formed during the Delano, Calif., farm workers' strike in 1965—came to see me in New York. It was the first time we had met. Luis had become interested in the dramatic potential of the Sleepy Lagoon murder case and wanted to talk to me about it because I had served as chairman of the defense committee. With the inevitable tape recorder at his side, he interviewed me for several hours. Since the trial had taken place in 1942, there were some big gaps in his knowledge of the facts. For example, he had not been able to find a transcript of the trial; nor had he heard of Alice McGrath, who served as secretary of the committee. It was a good talk. I liked Luis: an authentic. rather earthy person with a robust sense of humor. He knew what he wanted to know, which is a blessed relief in an interview. After he left, I had a feeling, rather tentative I must admit, that something just might come of our talk.

On March 25, Zoot Suit, the play Valdez wrote based on the case, opened Winter Garden Theatre after a long and successful run in Los Angeles where it is still grossing $90,000 a week. In this odd way a legend was born—some thirty-six years after the event. Just as the case on which the play is based marked the beginning of the so-called Chicano Rebellion, so the play marks a new chapter in Mexican-American experience. As William Overend pointed out in the Los Angeles Times (May 9,1978), the present has finally caught up with the past. Young Chicanos who were not born when the Sleepy Lagoon case was tried have flocked to see the play. Not only has Zoot Suit tapped a huge new audience in Los Angeles but it has been received with a general community enthusiasm that would have been unthinkable not so many years ago.

In the spring and summer of 1942 racial tensions were mounting in Los Angeles. The Japanese-Americans had been evacuated. Defense industries were booming. Rationing was an annoyance. Housing was in short supply. Manpower needs were acute. Droves of soldiers and sailors cruised through the streets in taxicabs looking for trouble. A disproportionate number of young Mexican-Americans were being drafted because they did not hold draft-deferred jobs. The likelihood of an explosion was obvious.

In this tense social setting, a free-for-all fight took place at an East Los Angeles gravel pit known as "Sleepy Lagoon," and the next day—August 2, 1942—a young Chicano was found near the scene and was rushed to the General Hospital where he died from injuries he had received. The police promptly rounded up twenty-four young Mexicans-Americans, members of one of a number of Chicano youth gangs, and a grand jury indicted them for first-degree murder. After a long trial before a gruesomely biased judge, seventeen were convicted in what was up to that time the largest mass murder trial ever held in the county. Before, after and during the trial the press, in cahoots with the police, kept up a vicious attack on Mexican-American youth gangs; better than any commentary these news stories reflected the temper of the times and the intense bias that existed against Chicanos.

After the verdict had been returned, a defense committee was formed, on which I served as chairman, to finance an appeal. New counsel was retained to prepare and argue the appeal. The costs were substantial; the trial had gone on for several months and the testimony filled 6,000 pages of transcript. But the committee was able to enlist the support of a number of Hollywood figures—Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Anthony Quinn—and some middle-class elements in both the Mexican-American and the larger community. On October 4, 1944, the District Court of Appeals (in People v. Zamora) reversed the convictions "for lack of evidence." The defendants were released after having served nearly two years in San Quentin Prison; it had been impossible to raise bail pending the appeal. The unanimous decision of the appellate court castigated the trial judge for bias, prejudicial remarks and gross misconduct. Later, all charges were dismissed.

Even before the convictions were reversed, the grand jury held open public hearings to inquire into charges of police brutality. I testified at these hearings on October 8, 1942, and warned that further trouble was to be expected if the combined press and police attacks continued. (The testimony is included in Julian Nava's Viva la Raza, 1973.) The following June, the "Zoot Suit Riots," which lasted a week or more, erupted in Los Angeles. This, in brief, is the factual background which Valdez has tapped for his fine play. But Zoot Suit is more than a play: it is an event of historic importance. The reversal of the convictions in the Sleepy Lagoon case represented the first major victory Mexican-Americans had won in the memory of the living. Slight Wonder, then, that the play has drawn such an enthusiastic response from the Hispanic community in Los Angeles.

As a footnote: during the 1943 riots a citizens' emergency meeting was called, which I chaired, to see what might be done to "cool" a dangerous situation. After the meeting I telephoned my friend, Attorney General Robert Kenny, in San Francisco and arranged for him to meet me the next morning in Los Angeles. At this early morning session I entreated him to urge Gov. Earl Warren to appoint an official committee of inquiry and suggested individuals who might be named. Warren accepted Kenny's recommendations and the commission then adopted a draft report I had prepared. Release of the report had the desired effect: if order was not fully restored, a war time truce was established.

Source: Carey McWilliams, "Second Thoughts" in the Nation, Vol. 228, no. 13, April 7, 1979, p. 358.

Borrowings - Comparing Zoot Suit to West Side Story

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In the pompous program notes accompanying "Zoot Suit" (at the Winter Garden), we are instructed that the show is "loosely based on the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Mystery of 1942 and the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 in Los Angeles [which] like other historical events that pass into folklore have become a kind of myth—a mixture of fact and fancy certain to elicit strong feelings when examined from any of a variety of perspectives." A footnote in fine print further instructs us that "while some of the events portrayed did indeed occur, others did not," and continues, "The characters are merely representatives or composites. 'Zoot Suit' is not a documentary, but a dramatization of the imagination." Now, nothing makes me more uneasy, in or out of a theatre, than phrases like "loosely based," "folklore," "myth," and "fact and fancy" (to say nothing of "dramatization of the imagination," which comes close to being gibberish). They all hint at the same ominous likelihood—that we are to be at the mercy of an author who makes words mean whatever he needs them to mean, and are therefore never to know whether our sympathies are being engaged by something that actually happened or are being manipulated by something that, for dramatic purposes, ought to have happened.

My feelings about the role of the writer as truthteller have led me to seem to take "Zoot Suit" and its fevered rhetoric much more seriously than it deserves. A big, noisy, brightly colored show, it is a West Coast descendant, broadened and cheapened, of "West Side Story," itself a show with a sufficiently long pedigree. In this version, Puerto Ricans have given way to Chicanos—those Mexican-Americans who make up a large portion of the population of Southern California. Within the barrios, they speak (or spoke in the forties) a lively patois of their own devising, but to judge by "Zoot Suit" their customs are (or were) markedly less original, resembling in thought, word, and deed those of every minority group that has ever sought to tell its story on an American stage. As a social document and a statement of protest, "Zoot Suit" is sorrily abreast of "Abie's Irish Rose."

In attempting to present a favorable view of the Chicano culture, Luis Valdez, the author and director of "Zoot Suit," appears not to have been aware of how unpleasant his view of that culture is bound to appear to most contemporary Americans. We are shown Chicanos being brutalized by white policemen, white prosecutors, and white judges, and we cannot fail to deplore their fate; at the same time, we are being shown Valdez's Chicano ideal, which consists of a family with the father as its absolute master. His sons must kiss his hand in parting, and the only advice he can give to a son who is on his way to prison is that he must act like "a man." Women must obey men without question or protest. Men, possessing women like chattels, may sleep with anyone they please, but women must remain chaste. One must be loyal, even to the point of murder, to one's family, one's gang, one's barrio. Well! A long evening of such grisly "macho", utterances is difficult to sit through, especially when we are expected to find virtue in them.

The large cast is headed by Daniel Valdez, brother of the author. He is a handsome and dynamic young man, if no actor, and he is assisted by, among others, Charles Aidman, Abel Franco, Paul Mace, Julie Carmen, and Edward James Olmos, who, acting as a sort of spokesman for the author, vulgarly fraternizes with the audience. The choreography is by Patricia Birch, the setting is by Thomas A. Walsh, the costumes are by Peter J. Hall, and the lighting is by Dawn Chiang. The grotesquely overamplified sound was "designed" by Abe Jacob, and I understand that there have been protests as far away as Woodlawn.

Source: Brendan Gill, "Borrowings" in the New Yorker, Vol. LV, no. 7, April 2, 1979 , p. 94.


Critical Overview