It’s the early 1940s on the balmy streets of Los Angeles. Chicano youths decked out in bold zoot suits are struggling with racial tensions and rival gangs as they grow up in a world run by white men.
Fast-forward to 2012 — Luis Valdez’s musical Zoot Suit, gives the audience a glimpse into the lives of the Mexican-Americans living in Los Angeles during World War II. Santa Ana College’s theater department will be performing the musical this month, in Phillips Hall Theatre on campus.
Since its premiere in 1978, it remains the only play, written and directed by a Chicano, to be performed on Broadway. It’s rare for theater companies to receive the performance rights.
SAC professor of theater, Chris Cannon, wrote a letter to El Teatro Campesino, Valdez’s original theater company. He was granted permission to put on the show this spring.
“We need to start motivating the next generation in theater and doing more socially conscious performances. That’s the goal,” Cannon said.
Cannon, in his second semester, has already proven to be an ambitious leader for the theater department.
“This is such an important part of Chicano history,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for the students here, especially, because a majority of them share that Chicano heritage.”
The play follows the life of Henry Reyna, a young Mexican-American man as well as his alter ego, El Pachuco, a symbolic character who embodies the rebellion of the Chicanos as they fight for the right to their own culture. Reyna faced charges in the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial that led to the subsequent zoot suit riots. Henry and several other Latino men were convicted of the murder of a man from a rival gang.
The riots were a result of racial and social tensions, born out of violent conflicts between white servicemen stationed in California and the young Latino men who lived there. The white masses disapproved of the Pachuco culture, seeing them as draft dodgers who didn’t support the war effort. The servicemen beat them brutally and stripped them of their suits, metaphors of financial and social success in a culture treated as an outsider.
After reading the script, the actors understand the gravity of the roles they are playing.
“You connect more to your character when you know that the person that you’re playing was real,” says Dominick Gallardo, who plays one of the men on trial. “It’s a kind of spiritual bond, and you don’t want to let them down.”
Zoot Suit will be performed on March 8, 9, 10, and 15, 16 at 8 p.m. and March 11 and 18 at 2:30 p.m. Ticket prices are: for children 12 and under $9.99, students/seniors/staff $12.00, adults $14.00.