Essay title: Zoot Suit Riots
“Zoot Suit” brings together unforgettable characters such as the irreverent El Pachuco and the charismatic Henry Reyna, an unsuspecting gang leader who finds himself caught in the middle of the racially turbulent events that rocked Los Angeles during the early 1940s. Valdez says this production exemplifies the evolution of American society. “The essence about the American experience is about cultural fusion,” Valdez says. “’Zoot Suit’ has influences that were brought on during the evolution of jazz, when you saw African American talent mixed with the American experience.
The Hispanic influence is amplified through the story, style and attitude, which are really influences that every culture can relate with.” Created by playwright Luis Valdez, “Zoot Suit” made its world premiere in 1978 at the Mark Taper Forum where it ran for an unprecedented twelve-weeks. “Zoot Suit” broke all attendance records at the Taper and subsequently moved to the larger Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood to accommodate audience demand.
Coinciding with the Hollywood run, this critically acclaimed production opened on Broadway in 1979. In 1981, Valdez adapted “Zoot Suit” for the screen and then directed the Golden Globe-nominated motion picture version starring Edward James Olmos and Tyne Daly. Despite his success in film, Valdez says nothing compares to creating and acting in a theater production. “It’s very gratifying to get the immediate reaction from the audience,” he says. “Many young playwrights tend to want to move toward making movies, mainly because of the potential to reach a world-wide audience.
However, you can’t see your viewers’ reactions.” At the age of 6, Valdez got his first taste of theater when he was cast to play a monkey for his school’s production of “Christmas in the Jungle.” “I use to bring my lunch in a paper bag and I remember when we were getting ready to prepare for the play, my teacher took my bag, ripped it up and used it to make papier mache,” he recalls. “We made masks for our costumes out of paper mache; and I got a monkey mask made from my lunch bag. I also got a tail and I remember our costumes were really nice, made with nice material. I was so excited.
”Valdez never got to perform in his school play because the week before the play, his family, who were farm workers, were evicted from their home and had to move. “They play went on without me,” he says. “I never got to act and I was very disappointed. That event created this hole in me; and I think from then on I’ve been trying to fill it through my work.” Valdez’s experience in a farm worker family provided much encouragement and drive when he founded El Teatro Campesino.
In 1965, Valdez left the San Francisco Mime Troupe.