When Center Theatre Group’s Founding Artistic Director Gordon Davidson met with Luis Valdez to commission a play that was quintessentially Los Angeles—what came from their meeting redefined theatre history. When Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit first premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in association with Teatro El Campesino in 1978, it made history as the first time a Chicano play had been given a mainstage production at the Taper. Nine months after its run in Los Angeles, it took over New York City and made waves as the first Chicano play on Broadway and later became the first Chicano major motion picture. In 2017, Zoot Suit was revived for a run at the Taper as part of Center Theatre Group’s 50th Anniversary Season.
Valdez’s revolutionary play is based on the Sleepy Lagoon Murder of 1942 and Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 in Los Angeles. Zoot Suit follows the story of Henry Reyna and the 38th Street Gang, who were tried and convicted for the alleged murder of José Gallardo Díaz despite lack of evidence. Twenty one members of the gang became victims of racial profiling and violence by the police and were sentenced to life in prison. The coverage of the Sleepy Lagoon trial escalated racial tensions in Los Angeles, ultimately inciting the Zoot Suit Riots in which over 600 Latino youths were arrested (L.A. Daily News). US servicemen and white Angelenos attacked people who wore zoot suits, as they were associated with anti-Americanism and the city’s Mexican-American youth—once referred to as, “hoodlums, gangsters, and juvenile delinquents.” But for Los Angeles’ Chicano community, the zoot suit and the defiance of those who donned them served as the inception of the Chicano Movement, or El Movimiento.
While the play grapples heavily with racism and violence against Chicanos, Davidson wrote that “the story is also about the search for identity, about rebellion against respectability, about the generational culture clash in a Chicano family, and the clash between cultures in the society as a whole, about xenophobia, about the war throughout the world and within our own communities, about the power of the press, about hysteria, racism, and stereotypes, and about the roles individuals assume in everyday life.” The show also serves to recall the history of the city of Los Angeles and expand the notions of what we understand to be the American experience. As Valdez stated in 1988, “I feel that the whole question of the human enterprise is up for grabs.” The themes explored in Zoot Suit were relevant in the 1940s when the story takes place, in the 1970s when the show was written, in 2017 when it was revived, and to this day, when many, if not all, of these same ideas and issues are as prevalent as ever.