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How 'Zoot Suit' Changed Theatre Forever


(L-R) Rose Portillo as Della, Daniel Valdez as Henry, Evelina Fernandez (partially seen), Edward James Olmos, Rachel Levario, and Mike Gomez in the world premiere of “Zoot Suit” at the Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Jay Thompson.

On August 17, 1978, Los Angeles theatre, Latino theatre, and American theatre changed forever with the opening of Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum. “When the character of El Pachuco, memorably played by Edward James Olmos, swaggered onto the Taper stage, Chicano theatre became American theatre,” explained writer/director Luis Valdez. Valdez calls Zoot Suit the “great-grandfather” of Latino theatre and credits it with “creating potential for success of Latino artists.”

This is true on both an individual and collective level. “I remember seeing the play at the Taper and then two years later seeing the movie [which Valdez also wrote and directed] on Sunset Boulevard at the Cinerama Dome,” said Culture Clash’s Richard Montoya. “Both events were just jaw-dropping, kind of we-had-arrived moments. We had arrived in terms of Chicanos in L.A. We had arrived in terms of the level of professional theatre.” Montoya reflected that he’s spent decades trying to recreate “the absolute electricity” of seeing Zoot Suit onstage in Downtown Los Angeles. “It’s something to always shoot for, and as a dramatist now, it’s a worthy endeavor. The shadow that the Pachuco cast is a glorious and warm shadow. I have no problem standing underneath the shadow—or standing on the broad shoulders—of El Pachuco or Luis.”

Playwright and actress Evelina Fernández, a founding member of Los Angeles’ Latino Theater Company, was still in college when she was cast in the original Zoot Suit. “I’m not being overly dramatic when I say, ‘It changed my life,’” she said. “It set me on the path of making theatre my life’s work.” It also put Los Angeles—and the rest of the country—on notice that an audience in the Latino community and beyond was ready and eager to hear Latino stories. “It was the first time Chicanos were on the main stage at a regional theatre, and it was the first time Latinos attended the theatre in huge numbers,” she recalled. “We didn’t realize it at first, but it soon became apparent that we were making history in the American theatre, and that the play’s truths about racism and discrimination suffered by Mexican-Americans in the U.S. struck a full emotional and political chord in our community.”

This was by design. Center Theatre Group Founding Artistic Director Gordon Davidson had asked Valdez to consider writing a play that would reflect the history of Los Angeles. Valdez was already intrigued by the story of the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder case and the zoot suit riots, as well as by a pachuco character. In 1977, Davidson commissioned Zoot Suit for the Taper. “Apparent in the 1940s and obvious by the 1970s, the dynamic, growing multicultural milieu of Los Angeles was the undeniable wave of the future,” said Valdez. “Gordon had the wisdom and prescience to see it coming. Instead of resisting or ignoring change, he generously gave the voices of the new American theatre an opportunity to speak for themselves.”

And America, and especially Los Angeles, listened. Close to half a million people saw Zoot Suit in Los Angeles over the course of a year—first in its sold-out run at the Taper and then at the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood before it headed to Broadway. Valdez estimated that approximately half of those in attendance in L.A. were new theatregoers. “I’ve always believed that theatre is a creator of community and that community is a real creator of theatre,” he said.

That’s just one reason why he’s excited to be bringing Zoot Suit back to the Taper for its first Los Angeles revival in honor of Center Theatre Group’s 50TH Anniversary. For as much progress as has been made over the past few decades, the play is “unfortunately as relevant as ever,” he said. Valdez is also eager to introduce Zoot Suit to a new generation of Angelenos—many of whom will be returning with their parents and grandparents, who saw the show the first time around.

California State University, Northridge Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies Denise Sandoval was only seven years old when Zoot Suit premiered, but she remembers her parents telling her about the show, and also seeing a plane advertising it with skywriting above her grandparents’ home in Lincoln Heights. (“I got so excited that a play about Mexicans was in the sky,” she said. “I thought it was so cool!”) As a college student in her first Chicano studies class, she learned the history behind the play and later watched the movie version for the first time.

“I learned so much about L.A. history and Chicana/o history,” she said. “The work of Luis Valdez is one of the reasons I majored in Chicana/o studies and I am now a Chicana/o studies professor.” She has taught Zoot Suit in graduate classes and has spent nearly two decades documenting lowrider history in L.A., which intertwines with zoot suit history.

Center Theatre Group Teaching Artist Juan Parada, who is helping lead our Student Matinee programming around Zoot Suit, will also be seeing the play onstage for the first time—but he too has felt its impact already. “My brother reminded me that Zoot Suit was the first film we saw when we moved to L.A. from El Salvador,” said Parada. “Zoot Suit marks the first for many people: the first Chicano/Latino play to make it to Broadway, the first big hit for the actors, the first time seeing your story told on the big screen, and the first time ever seeing a film…”

This, to Valdez, is part of the magic of this play. “I want to create a common vision that speaks to an audience,” he said. And if there is a time when we need to find a common vision it is indeed now. “Zoot Suit is one of the great plays of the American canon, a story that took place 75 years ago, just miles from Downtown Los Angeles,” said Center Theatre Group Artistic Director Michael Ritchie.

“A play about discrimination. About anger. About violence. And although it takes place in the 1940s and was written in the 1970s, that discrimination, that violence, that anger, still exists. And we still have a forum—the Mark Taper Forum—to not only tell that particular story, but also to use that as a starting point for a dialogue that helps to change the narrative.”

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