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Zoot Suit Returns After 30-Year Absence; Outreach Focuses on Area Teens

“Where do I fit in?” is a question all teenagers ask themselves.

Pomona College Theatre Professor Alma Martinez hopes to help 1,000 high school students answer that question with a staging of Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit, April 3-13, a fascinating story of local Los Angeles history based on the seldom taught Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and Zoot Suit riots.

Zoot Suit premiered on stage in 1978 and went on to become the first Chicano play on Broadway and, in 1981, the first all-Chicano Hollywood feature film. The Pomona College production is the first time the playwright has allowed Zoot Suit to be staged in the Los Angeles area in 30 years, entrusting it to Prof. Martinez, who played Lupe in the original production and in the film.

Martinez points out that many of the larger issues in the play resonate with the lives of Hispanic American teens today. Many are children of immigrants who feel caught between their parents’ culture and trying to assimilate into American culture. They, family members or friends have experienced racial profiling or discrimination. And, their communities often have a contentious relationship with police. Other historical parallels include the May Day 2007 march in McArthur Park that ended in chaos and the power of the media to sensationalize events.

“I want to get kids excited about theatre,” says Martinez, “and show them that theatre can be a route to social justice giving voice to issues that concern them deeply…. Zoot Suit was such a phenomenal hit, that it became the public apology that the community never got. It told people, ‘You didn’t do anything wrong. The system failed you.’ It helped heal a wound that had been open for 35 years. Zoot Suit was also the first time there was a strong, sexy powerful Latino in a leading role – El Pachuco.”

During the play’s 11-day run, 1,000 tickets, almost one-third of those available, have been set aside for high school students. The outreach effort, which includes a vibrant study guide that examines the historical and cultural context of the Zoot Suit riots, Los Angeles in the 1940s, the role of Chicanos in World War II, and the pachuco urban gang culture of the period, is partially funded by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation.

Tina Kim, a teacher at the Civitas School of Leadership in the Mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles, is eagerly looking forward to the performance. In an e-mail to Martinez she wrote, “I received the study guides today (we just returned from Spring Break), and they are AMAZING!... The study guides are so eye-catching and engaging. Some students who are not in the class in which we are reading Zoot Suit asked if they could switch into it after seeing the study guides! I chucked my original lesson plan for today and we read the historical overview sections on the back pages. During the entire lesson, student engagement was very high and they were able to make really sound connections and thoughtful observations about the Sleepy Lagoon trial, the Riots, and our times today. This curriculum is a perfect example of using students' prior knowledge and experiences to teach history.”

For Martinez, being able to reach out to the community and provide access to Zoot Suit for area teens is a personal mission. Born in Mexico, she immigrated with her parents to the U.S. as a very small child and graduated from El Rancho High in Pico Rivera. She won a full scholarship to USC but, in her words, “crashed and burned. I couldn’t adjust.” Questions about her place in the world delayed her education but she eventually earned her Bachelor’s degree from Whittier College, MFA from USC and her Ph.D. from Stanford.

“Theatre, specifically Luis Valdez’s theatre company El Teatro Campesino, saved me,” she explains. “I discovered that I was American and that my Latino cultural heritage had rich, deep roots in U.S. history. If I had seen or performed in Zoot Suit as a young adult, I would have known I was Chicana. I hope our production can reach the younger audience in the same way.”

Alma Martinez, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Theatre and Dance
Pomona College
Phone: (909) 607-4382

Cynthia Peters
Director, Media Relations
Pomona College
Phone: (909) 621-8515