Zoot Suit Play Analysis Essay

Luis Valdez coined the term acto to describe a short play in which reality and performance are barely distinguishable—its performers are shown “in the act” of living as well as performing. His first acto was The Theft (wr. 1959), a symbolic one-act about the harassment and crucifixion of a beatnik. Later, stirred by social action plays he had seen on a 1964 visit to Cuba, Luis Valdez began writing actos as an organizer for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers about the time of the 1965 Huelga (strike). Starting with the short “message” playlets, many of them broadly comic, performed outside by volunteer actors, he went on to organize El Teatro Campesino and to write more ambitious short plays such as Los vendidos (pr. 1967; the sellouts), an agitprop (agitation and propaganda) performance about intimidation and racial stereotyping, and Bernabe (pr. 1970). The latter, about man’s relationship to the earth, draws on the Chicano’s pre-Columbian heritage and introduces a zoot-suited pachuco as well.

Zoot Suit shares the legacy of modern protest drama, much of it propagandistic and leftist, extending from central Europe between the world wars to America during the Vietnam War era. The play’s influences range from the expressionist theater of Georg Kaiser and Ernst Toller to such antiwar efforts of the 1970’s as David Rabe’s The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (pr. 1971), which also features a dark-skinned choral figure, brutal realism, free form, and an even more unrestricted treatment of time and events than Valdez attempts.

Zoot Suit is agitprop drama meant to depict social injustice as Bertolt Brecht’s plays did, making use of rapid scenes performed on a nearly empty stage where locations change swiftly, with little transition. While the play refers to incidents that occurred historically in the Los Angeles of the 1940’s, it seeks to combat the racial prejudice of any era. It depends to a great extent on the semi-documentary technique used by the “living newspapers” of the Depression; like them, Zoot Suit dramatizes injustice in order to educate and awaken responses, and it “reports” its story in fragmented scenes. Newspapers serve symbolically as furniture, as a drop curtain, even as laundry hanging on a barrio clothesline.

Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez

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“Zoot Suit”

Luis Valdez made a great contribution to Chicano theater when he created a Chicano musical a form of theater that was more common for white America. As I read Zoot Suit I could not stop wondering how the play would look once it was on stage. I could not picture a play that included singing and dancing one which does not compare to the other plays written by Luis Valdez and the Teatro Campesino. I only wish that I had been lucky enough to watch the play live. However, I do feel that if the play was to be re-enacted it would not have the same effect on it’s viewers of today as it might have then. Unfortunately I feel that might be its only downfall. I was still really amazed that this play made it to Broadway and I feel it was just as worthy of it as other plays have been. It is also very interesting to note that it was his longest running play in Los Angeles however; I am assuming that has to do with the large number of Mexican and Mexican-Americans living in LA during that time.

     I found the play very interesting and could not stop reading especially because I knew that the play was based on a true story a crime that actually took place against Chicanos. I did not know much about the sleepy lagoon case before I read the play. Having an interest on the subject helped me stay focus on the story and kept me reading. However, I kept wanting a stage visual of the play so that I could stay alert. As I watched the movie for the first time I felt great and yet, a bit bewildered to see so many brown faces on stage at the same time but ultimately I truly loved the feeling of it. I only wish that more plays or even movies would include Latinos onto the stage. I feel that the fact that Luis Valdez created a more American type of play made it more possible to be seen by many more people. If Zoot Suit would have been kept as an acto its audience would have been selective and minimal.

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Overall I really enjoyed reading and watching the play. By being able to see how a play is supposed to look on stage I was given a greater understanding of the characters. Even though I believe that if the play were to be re-enacted today it will not have the same turn out or popularity but I believe that it will still continue to be a valuable play for the Chicano community and a wonder to watch.

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