Your Online Casebook
This is the central online casebook for Zoot Suit, by Luis Valdez, produced by the UCSC Department of Theater Arts.
Directed by: Kinan Valdez
Assistant Directed by: Ciera Eis
Dramaturgy by: Dr. Michael M. Chemers
Assistant Dramaturgy by: Victoria Gardiner, Nina McMurtie, Vanessa Di Franco, Francim Aguilar, Adrian Centeno, and Wendy Burr.
Navigating This Website
On this website you'll find a variety of research materials gathered by the Dramaturgy team for the purposes of enriching our production and supporting the variety of artistic processes involved in this show. At the top of this page is the navigation bar, where you will find:
- Quick-Reference Guide: here is a quick-and-easy rundown of the major events, themes, and people important to this play, with links for more extensive research.
- Production Histories: useful information about four significant productions of Zoot Suit; the Taper 1978, Broadway 1980, the 1981 film, and the 2017 Taper revival, including reviews and a summary of critical responses.
- Visual Research: Images to stimulate your mind and move your heart.
- Glossary: here we explain the specialized vocabulary of the play, including historical references and the Caló slang terminology. There is also a full line-by-line translation of lines in Caló used by the characters.
- Blog: here you will find a variety of materials including reviews of the Taper production and videos of the 1978 Zoot Suit rehearsal process, Pachuco performance culture, and much more!
Below you will find a short dramaturgical orientation statement (Why This Play Now?) for our specific production. If you have any questions, contact the dramaturgical team!
WHY THIS PLAY NOW?
"Forget the war overseas, carnal. Your war is on the home front." - El Pachuco
Dramaturgs ask questions, and the most important question a dramaturg can ask is "Why This Play Now?" Theatre is the liveliest of the lively arts - no art form is more dependent on an immediate dialogue with the audience, the community, the nation, or the world in the moment of performance. So we must always ask ourselves why THIS play in particular - what is going on in the world that makes THIS play particularly relevant or important to produce right now?
In the case of Luis Valdez's American classic ZOOT SUIT, the most obvious answer is not necessarily the best one. Without a doubt, Valdez' combination of serious ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter, the themes of pride and inclusion, the heightened Brechtian/"Living Newspaper" theatricality, and the celebration of Chicano/a/x culture in the 1940's makes this vibrant, funny, poignant, colorful play worth performing at any time. But we are not producing a museum piece, even one as good as this one, whose 1978 premier at the Mark Taper Forum was so popular the papers called it "the Second Zoot Suit Riot." On the contrary, the social factors that made ZOOT SUIT so relevant to audiences in Los Angeles, New York, and all over the US in 1978 grant the play a new, or perhaps merely more visible, significance for audiences in 2017. 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 Williams, Arthur Miller, Lilian Hellman and Tony Kushner, but one that even in 1978 remained barely recognized as American at all. ZOOT SUIT was also a battle cry, a cultural call to the eses and carnalas to póngar más abusados and demand the respect that white culture continued to deny them.
In January of 2017 the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles revived this, possibly their most celebrated and influential hit, to a freshly riotous reception. The play was a smash, sold out for three extensions into early April. Audiences might have come expecting a nostalgic experience, to revel in the kitsch of a beloved piece of culture from their youth, but that is not exactly what the revival delivered. Undoubtedly the openly racist, unapologetically divisive, and even gleefully hateful rhetoric that dominated the 2016 US Presidential Election (one in which the most racist, divisive, and hateful comments came from the candidate who would become President) has spurred a new rise in prejudice, vandalism, and violence directed at ethnic minorities. This plays a cardinal role in how this play is freshly understood. ICE raids unthinkable only a few months ago have become a regular occurrence even here in Santa Cruz, splitting families and punishing those guilty of only bureaucratic infractions. DACA Students at UCSC who were confident in their status are now afraid to file for grants or register for classes for fear of suddenly getting targeted. Last year a student of mine was detained by ICE for four weeks on what turned out to be a matter of mistaken identity.
Not everyone knows that Valdez revised the play for its 2017 production - we are the second producing company to perform this new script. The revisions are subtle, minuscule even: a word here, a phrase there, perhaps a quiet indication of a different emphasis on this line or that gesture. The essential ZOOT SUIT remains in all its original cucho style, but these tiny tweaks make a universe of difference; for instance, the women of the play emerge stronger, with more theatrical power and depth, befitting a society more awake to the perils of sexism. The rebuke to the failures of the American Dream to include ALL Americans remains, but Valdez subtly reminds us that Chicanos weren't the only ones to be denied that dream - and that some who thought themselves secure in that dream might find it precipitously revoked. Still specifically and pointedly Chicano, the play now invites all ethnic minorities to remember that white supremacy can be fickle about whom it allows into its protection, and whom it targets.
The other important, and convergent, theme this play visits is the immense power of the press - a potentially maleficent power, when abused, that can enervate public discourse even as it alchemizes latent fears into raging hatreds. This phenomenon tends to metastasize when tensions about outsiders run high - when a war is on, or when a country faces (or THINKS it faces) an existential threat. Rather than directing reasonable energies to combatting the external threat, the mood of the public tends to turn inward, to attack internal threats real or imagined. ZOOT SUIT 2017 reminds us that this phenomenon is not at all mired in the benighted years of the Great War, but has become rather the background noise of our everyday political environment.
El Pachuco is specifically Chicano in his aspect, style, mythic power, and theatricality. But his resistance to hatred and the subversion of civil rights is far more widely human. Through him, the play reminds us that the American Dream, if it does not include all Americans, is no dream at all.
From La Mezcla’s all-female Oakland production of a play celebrating Pachuca culture in 2017.
Follow this link to see selections from an all-female version of “Pachuquismo,” a melange of tap dancing, Zapateado, and poetry that illustrates the Pachuca experience from the 1940’s.
The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Hernandez v. Texas was a legal watershed for Mexican Americans in the United States. In that decision, the nation’s highest court ruled that the systematic exclusion of persons of Mexican ancestry from juries in Jackson County, Texas violated the Constitution. The evidence of exclusion included the fact that no… Continue Reading Hernandez v. Texas: Legacies of Justice and Injustice, by Kevin R. Johnson
Critic’s Choice ‘Zoot Suit’ at the Taper: An L.A. revival, perfectly timed ‘Zoot Suit’ at the Mark Taper Forum Charles McNulty Charles McNultyContact Reporter Theater Critic “Zoot Suit,” the landmark 1978 play by Luis Valdez that put the struggles of Mexican Americans front and center, is back where it originated at the Mark Taper Forum… Continue Reading LA TIMES Review of ZOOT SUIT Taper (Charles McNulty)