Pomona College Magazine
Volume 44, No. 2
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Q&A / Alma Martinez
Zoot Suit Turns 30

Opening in Los Angeles 30 years ago, Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit was a breakthrough production, going on to become the first Chicano play on Broadway and, a few years later, the first all-Chicano Hollywood feature film.

In that heady time, Alma Martinez had her own breakthrough—as the lead actress in Zoot Suit’s run at the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood. Martinez reprised her starring role in the film. Now, in honor of Zoot Suit’s 30th anniversary, Martinez will be directing an April production of the landmark play at Pomona College, where today she is assistant professor of theatre. In an interview with PCM’s Sneha Abraham, Martinez talks about this historic production—then and now.

Describe your experience acting in the play and the film.
It was one of the most exciting, vibrant, heady, artistic, creative experiences in my career. It was groundbreaking to mainstream audiences and for Latino audiences it was a fundamental, ideological, political, social shake-up. It’s a masterpiece of the American theatre canon. We did eight shows a week for nine months. Even now I hear that music and my foot starts tapping. That’s the beauty of acting, your body remembers it.

How did the audience receive it?
A lot of our audience had never been to the theatre, so they didn’t know the protocol. It was crazy. We had bouncers! Or let’s say, a very strong usher… The audience was talking back to the actors, walking up on the stage, having tailgate parties. That was the beauty of it—these people were responding viscerally to what they’d seen. It was totally fun.

Why is Zoot Suit important historically?
The play was a retelling of the Zoot Suit riots of ’43 and the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial in ’42. It addressed a painful question of ‘why’—why did the L.A.P.D. stand by as the U.S. military terrorized our community? Zoot Suit became the retelling of the story from the Latino/Chicano perspective and became the apology they never got. It helped heal a wound that had been open for 35 years.

What is the relevance of Zoot Suit today?
First, it’s the most important play ever written about the Mexican American community and one of the most important of the American theatre canon.

Second, it speaks about a period in L.A. history where there was blatant and violent discrimination against the Mexican American community by the U.S. military in collusion with the Los Angeles Police Department.

Third, it’s important to look at how far we’ve come. In May 2007 the L.A. Police Department brutally attacked peaceful protesters in MacArthur Park—the violence harkened back to the 1943 Zoot Suit riots. But unlike then, now we have a mayor who happens to be Latino, who took quick action and led an investigation.

Finally, theatre allows us to relive important historical moments in an impassioned, physical and visceral way that movies, books and visual arts can not. Theatre is transformative in this regard, life-changing and for the generation of Latinos victimized by the Zoot Suit riots and Sleepy Lagoon case, it becomes a ritual of community healing.

How have things changed for Latinos in theatre?
First of all, colleges like ours are able to find plays like Zoot Suit. They exist. They didn’t exist 30 years ago. Back when we were creating Chicano theatre we had to write our own. The Teatro Chicano movement motivated a lot of us to go into professional theatre and education—most southwest colleges now have a Chicano theatre expert on faculty. We veteranos are now at an age where we are able to pass on the history and passionate creativity of theatre to new generations.

It was also a catalyst for a lot of careers, especially for Latinos. Edward James Olmos, Lupe Ontiveros, Tony Plana, and also Tyne Daly, Jack Bender and Kurtwood Smith.

What is the outreach component of this new production?
It’s incredibly exciting. Our goal is to reach 1,000 high school kids because we want a new generation to experience Zoot Suit. We have a study guide that we will distribute—as of now we have 650 high school students coming.

What’s it like to change hats and direct?
It’s interesting because when I’ve directed professional productions, I’m more concerned about putting on a good show. But here at Pomona I also feel I have a mandate to provide a solid academic component. It’s an opportunity to talk about historical themes: where we’ve come from, the state of Latinos and law enforcement and where we are now. Also, I hope to pass on to my actors the excitement of live theatrical performance. Zoot Suit was the peak of the Chicano cultural renaissance. Culturally speaking, it was influential.

What is your hope for the students involved?
I want them to experience the same level of enthusiasm and commitment as when I did the play. When they’re done, I want them all to be honorary Chicanos; and by understanding this they will understand the beauty and the history of it and the history of Los Angeles. They’re going to embody the experience of what it means to be a young Zoot Suiter. If they can get it in their bodies and get the academic foundation, that’s an incredible gift, that’s an incredible package.

Behind the Play
The Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 were sparked by community outrage following the Sleepy Lagoon murder case convictions of 22 members of the 38th Street Gang and by a small ruckus between servicemen and Chicanos in downtown Los Angeles. Because of this brawl, the Los Angeles Police Department and U.S. servicemen—from the Navy primarily—came in and retaliated against the community, targeting the zoot-suiters—Mexican Americans wearing ballooned pants and long coats.

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