43 pages 1 hour read

Luis Valdez

Zoot Suit

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1992

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Summary and Study Guide


Zoot Suit is a play by Luis Valdez. It debuted in 1978. Valdez has spent his career addressing issues that are crucial to the Chicano community in the United  States. Unlike Valdez’s earlier works, Zoot Suit stages a historical rather than a contemporary event to broach important social issues. As Jorge Huerta illuminates, “Zoot Suit is the logical culmination of all that Valdez and his collective had written before, combining elements of the acto, mito, and corrido in a spectacular documentary play with music” (xvi). The play borrows tactics from both Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre and Living Newspapers, using a presentational (abstracted) rather than a representational (realistic) style. Like Brecht, Valdez repeatedly reminds viewers that they are watching a play.

Set in Los Angeles during the infamous Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and Zoot Suit Riots of 1942 and 1943, Zoot Suit portrays the inequities of a racist justice system fueled by biased media representations of Chicano youth. On August 1st, 1942, a fight broke out among partygoers at the Sleepy Lagoon reservoir and twenty-one-year-old José Díaz was allegedly bludgeoned to death by a fellow Latino. This led to a media frenzy of anti-Chicano sentiment, portraying Mexican-American teens as delinquents and degenerates. Valdez fictionalizes the event, partially altering the names of historical figures. The play follows Henry Reyna who, along with twenty-one of his friends and fellow 38th Street gang members, is arrested for the murder of José Williams.

Through a series of flashbacks and often bitterlyfarcical reenactments, Zoot Suit focuses on four of the twenty-two unfairlyimprisoned men. The first act stages their satirically nightmarish first trial, in which the judge allows the Press, a physical manifestation of the sensationalized news media, to act as the prosecuting attorney. Through the efforts of attorney George Shearer, journalist Alice Bloomfield, and a diligent defense team, the gang receives an appeal in the second act that leads to their eventual acquittal. In the background of the play, the so-called Zoot Suit Riots rage in Los Angeles as white Americans react to the media’s sensationalized vilification of zoot suiters with violence against Mexican-American youths.

Throughout the play, a character named El Pachuco serves as a narrator, a crooner, and Henry’s inner voice and alter-ego. Zoot Suit offers a complex portrayal of the accused gang members. They fight with rival gangs, drink, and commit petty crimes. However, they are also fathers, beloved sons, lovers, proud Chicanos, American patriots, and, in some cases, practically children. Regardless, the play decisively affirms their innocence in the case of the Sleepy Lagoon murder. Zoot Suit unabashedly defends pachuco pride and the zoot suit, or drapes, as an expression of that pride during a historical moment in which the media “distorted the very meaning of the word ‘zoot suit’” (67) as a racialized symbol of juvenile delinquency.

When Zoot Suit opened in Los Angeles in 1978, it became a record-breaking success for Los Angeles theatre. Although New York received the play with less enthusiasm–the production lasted only four weeks–the Los Angeles fervor for the work led to a film adaptation in 1981. Zoot Suit “exposes social ills in a presentational style. It is a play that is closer to the docu-drama form, owing more to Brecht than to Clifford Odets” (xvii). For late-1970s audiences, the racism that the defendants of the Sleepy Lagoon murder case experienced during their arrest, trial, and appeal spoke–and continues to speak–to contemporary issues of police brutality, xenophobia, and the racially-disproportionate prison population. Zoot Suit attacks racial stereotypes by representing the Chicano man as the product of his rich history and culture: a being who contains multitudes.