When Zoot Suit premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1978, it was more than just an instant success.As former Los Angeles Times theater critic Sylvie Drake recently observed, “it exploded on the stage with the force of a sociopolitical A-bomb.”
Playing to standing-room-only crowds, it ran for a year before moving to New York to become the first play on Broadway written by a Chicano author. It was soon adapted into a feature film starring Edward James Olmos and Tyne Daly in 1981.
Zoot Suit was written by Luis Valdez, a key figure in the Chicano Rights Movement. Based on a real incident, the play tells the story of the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder of a Los Angeles man and the response by the police, which led to the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of a group of Mexican-American men without evidence for being “Mexican and dangerous.”
The result was a wave of incidents of violence against Latinos and other minorities in LA and cities across the country, which became known as the Zoot Suit Riots.
Four decades after its premiere, Valdez has created a new version of the play, which just opened in February on that original Los Angeles stage. And on May 26-June 4, UC Santa Cruz will become the first academic theater to produce the new script.
“The social factors that made Zoot Suit so relevant to audiences in 1978 give the play a fresh significance for audiences in 2017,” said Michael Chemers, associate professor of theater arts at UC Santa Cruz.
“Zoot Suit in 1978 was a rebuke to mainstream American culture for its lingering refusal to allow Mexican-Americans to participate in the American Dream, as much as it was a celebration of a different vision of what it meant to be American–a vision as uniquely and authentically American as those represented in the plays of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee …