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Zoot Suit: Where History, Theater and Culture Meet

When most college students hear the phrase "Zoot Suit Riot," they think first and foremost of the catchy swing tune by the Cherry Poppin' Daddies. However, Pomona theater professor Alma Martinez, who is directing the upcoming production of Zoot Suit, is hoping to change that association and bring awareness to the real-life riots that are an oft-forgotten but nevertheless essential part of Chicano history.

Zoot Suit, written by the legendary playwright Luis Valdez, has not been shown in the Los Angeles area since its 1978 premiere. Now, three decades later, the protective Valdez is allowing Martinez, who acted in the original musical and its 1981 film version, to stage the play once again. Zoot Suit will be performed at Pomona's Seaver Theater April 3 through 13.

To commemorate the show's 30th anniversary, the theater department has invited members of the original cast and crew on campus to see the opening night performance, including Valdez, his son Daniel (Zoot Suit's composer), and actor Edward James Olmos, who played El Pachuco on both Broadway and in the 1981 film version. All three, as well as Martinez, will also speak at an invitation-only dinner at the CMC Athenaeum.

The first Chicano-produced musical to hit Broadway, Zoot Suit depicts the "Sleepy Lagoon" trials that preceded the Zoot Suit Riots, in which a group of pachucos (Mexican-American gang members) were wrongly convicted of murder charges. The politically charged theme imbues the production with a particularly strong relevance for the cast. "You can relate a lot of [the play] to immigration issues and what's going on now," said Claremont McKenna sophomore Eric Trujillo, who plays Jose Castro.

For the students in the cast, few of whom were familiar with the story of the Zoot Suit Riots, the past three months of working 15-hour weeks have proven to be a lesson in both theater and history. In the first weeks of rehearsal, Martinez assigned readings about the Sleepy Lagoon trials and screened the movie for the cast. Students agree that her intimacy with the material makes her enthusiasm for the musical contagious. "She doesn’t just want the play to be good," said Scripps sophomore Caroline Almy, who plays a member of the "Pachuco Trio." "It's really for her community."

The tone of the musical is alternately somber and playful, while the hazy narrative structure often blurs the line between reality and fantasy. "I think of it as a comedy," Trujillo said. "It's often light-hearted, but it also gets its message across."

Says Claremont McKenna junior Camilo Cuellar, who plays the main role of El Pachuco: "I view it as a focused wake-up call, so people see what happened to these people."

The cast is excited about the eclectic mix of students taking part in the production, from seasoned theater majors to newbie actors wanting to learn more about their Chicano roots. Despite a wide variety of backgrounds, the cast has clicked in a way that few expected. "I've never been with a group of actors that was this tight," Almy said. "We're forging these cross-cultural relationships that I normally wouldn’t have found."

Particularly important for individuals involved in the production is the potential impact of Zoot Suit on a new generation of students unaware of this part of American history. Many cast members cite the significance of the musical to both entertain and educate, and Martinez has echoed such sentiments with her decision to set aside 1,000 reduced-price tickets--with accompanying "study guides" about the riots--for Southern California high school students. "While we're creating this production, we are in a sense creating this history because so many young people don't know about it," said Pomona sophomore Tammy Zhu, who plays a newsgirl.

Zoot Suit will be performed April 3 to 5 and April 10 to 12 at 8 p.m., as well as April 5, 6, 12 and 13 at 2 p.m. The play has sold out quickly, but waiting lists will be open to walk-ups one hour before each show in case people who reserved tickets do not arrive.

Zoot Suit is part of The Claremont College’s Cesar Chavez Month celebration, which Pomona is hosting this year. Zoot Suit-related events include the photography exhibit "LA in the Zoot Suit Era" at the Smith Campus Center Gallery, which is open through April 13. A second exhibit, "Ignacio Gómez: a 30-Year Retrospective," features artwork by the creator of the original Zoot Suit film poster and is running through April 11 at Pitzer’s Salathe Gallery.