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 steps in to break up a one-sided attack. Newsboys shouting inflammatory headlines and a lawyer predicting mass trials prepare viewers for legal farce. The prosecution twists testimony proving police misunderstandings and Henry’s heroism to win an unjust conviction. White liberals distort the conviction of the zoot-suiter “gang” for personal ends, and even the Pachuco narrator is ultimately overpowered and stripped by servicemen. The play ends as it began: with the war over, the incarcerated scapegoats released, and police persecution renewed. Leaving viewers with the choice of multiple possible endings, Valdez not only reflects the Mayan philosophy of multiple levels of existence but also offers alternate realities dependent on American willingness to accept or deny reality: a calm Henry and supportive family group united against false charges, Henry as victim of racist stereotypes reincarcerated and killed in a prison fight, Henry the born leader dying heroically in Korea and thereby winning a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor, Henry a father with several children, Henry merged with El Pachuco, a living myth and symbol of Chicano heritage and Chicano oppression. Thus, Reyna the individual portrays Chicanos in crisis in general. The plays shows Chicanos undermined by a prejudiced press, racist police, and an unjust legal system that distorts facts. The play shows how American society denies Chicanos an opportunity to live or even sacrifice for the American Dream.
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,...
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