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How ‘Zoot Suit’ Can Help Students Find a Voice

Classroom Connections


(L-R) Jeanine Mason, Demian Bichir, Matias Ponce, Daniel Valdez, and Rose Portillo in the revival of “Zoot Suit.”

Photo by Craig Schwartz

In Classroom Connections, Center Theatre Group invites groups of educators to enjoy a night out at the theatre—followed by a discussion of the show and where they found inspiration over food and drinks. The goal is to talk about the bridges we can build between the craft of theatre and the craft of classroom teaching.

For the Opening Night of Zoot Suit (at the Mark Taper Forum through April 2, 2017), three teachers from the Los Angeles High School of the Arts (LAHSA, for short—located on the RFK Community Schools Campus in Koreatown) joined me: Annie Simons, Jessie Martinez-Wilton, and Elizabeth Mora. I asked them very simply to share what excited them about the show—including content that might resonate with students, scenes they liked, and how they might be able to introduce technical elements of the show to their classes.

Zoot Suit offered many levels of personal connection for Elizabeth Mora. As a Latina, Mora could easily identify with many of larger topics introduced in the show: discrimination, women’s roles in society, and language. Mora, who teaches cultural geography and AP government, struggled with learning Spanish as she was growing up. Like many second- and third-generation Latinos (myself included), her parents wanted her to fully participate in mainstream American society. That meant the English language came first, and Spanish was to be left at the wayside. Mora can easily understand how many of the characters in Zoot Suit felt for risking their display of Latino-ness. “I think my students would absolutely identify with the story. A lot of these challenges are part of their lives,” said Mora. “Having students study the play can offer a lots of ways to talk about these themes openly.”

Jessie Martinez-Wilton is LAHSA’s current Head of Theatre Design & Technology. She believes finding personal connections between students and curriculum content is key. Martinez-Wilton is not only a teacher; she’s also a working professional theatre designer who carries the special designation of a CTE (Career Technical Education) instructor—which basically means she has a foot in both the school and the stage. Martinez-Wilton said the costumes of Zoot Suit as well as the story told by writer/director Luis Valdez, co-founder of groundbreaking Chicano theatre company El Teatro Campesino, present a perfect opportunity to explore how personal style and communication mixes with a designer’s task to fuse form and function onstage. “The purpose of wearing a zoot suit is to make a change. And the purpose of El Teatro Campesino is to talk about something that people couldn’t talk about,” she said. “The beautiful thing about this play, it’s about historical events, but it’s hard to find this in a history textbook. But I can find it in a fashion textbook!”

When her students reach their junior year, Martinez-Wilton assigns fashion history projects that focus on how men’s and women’s silhouettes change through the decades. “I’d be so excited for my students to see Zoot Suit onstage, because we talk about the tacuches [suits] and the drapes in class!” she explained. “I ask them to think about why styles are changing based on things that are happening politically and socially. What was happening in these Latino communities that gives rise to this type of suit for men? We talk about how it was in protest and because of tension on both sides. On one hand, soldiers were angry because the amount of fabric it took to make a zoot suit—there was supposed to be rationing of materials during the war. They also thought [the zoot suiters] were anti-government. On the other hand, we study how the zoot suiters were in defiance of white authority and discrimination. This costume or silhouette intentionally went against the norm. The zoot suit gives me and my students the chance to explore the markers of ‘I am my own person.’”

“That is theatre!” added an enthusiastic Annie Simons. “Theatre in its basic, most humble form is bare communication: I have something to say—I hope this story helps you hear it.”

Simons noted her observation echoed the central message of Zoot Suit’s El Pachuco, the mystical alter ego of the protagonist of the play who also serves as a sort of master of ceremonies of the action happening onstage. Ultimately, he tells us that each person carries an individual power to communicate a story inside them that needs to be told.

The four of us talked about the journalist character who tried to summarize the protagonist, Henry Reyna, and his legacy by describing how he “went back to prison…and died of the trauma of his life.” But the Pachuco quickly punches back with his line: “That’s the way you see it, ese. But there’s other ways to end this story.”

“What a perfect idea to bring back to our students,” said Simons. “Their stories matter and can be told from their own perspective. I want to help people find a voice and find a community and find confidence and risk. It’s why I teach. I teach to give back. I teach to communicate. I teach to give permission.”

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