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Professor Alma Martinez Brings "Zoot Suit" to National Theatre Company of Mexico

Zoot Suit poster
Zoot Suit cast / Photo by CNT / Sergio Carreón Ireta

Zoot Suit cast / Photo by CNT / Sergio Carreón Ireta

On April 29, The National Theatre Company of Mexico will open Zoot Suit, the first Chicano play it has ever performed. Pomona College Theatre Professor Alma Martinez was instrumental in bringing the play to the company and is serving as US-Mexico Project Coordinator. She will also perform the role of Dolores Reyna. Luis Valdez, who wrote the play, will direct.

Zoot Suit premiered in Los Angeles in 1978 and became the first Chicano-produced musical on Broadway. The story depicts the Los Angeles-based "Sleepy Lagoon" trials in which Chicano youth were wrongly convicted of murder, and the violent and infamous Zoot Suit Riots during which pachucos (Mexican-American gang members) were beaten and stripped by 200 U.S. servicemen while city police officers watched. Zoot Suit broke all existing Los Angeles box-office records at the time.

Martinez, who brought the idea to the Theater Company in January 2009, acted in the original production and the 1982 film version. In 2008, the playwright allowed Martinez to stage the play at Pomona College, marking its first Los Angeles-area performance in 30 years. Because of the Zoot Suit’s ability to educate audiences, Martinez set aside 1,000 reduced price tickets for Southern California high school students and created a study guide. Schools and the general public eagerly snapped up the tickets, and the show sold out its entire run in five days, two weeks before opening. In 2009, Martinez staged the play for a second time at Pomona College and organized a mini-conference on “Identity, Pride and Defiance: Where Do You Stand?” for 200 high school students.

For the Mexico production, Pomona College students Matthew Helm ’12, Stephanie Valdez ’13 and ITS staff member Jason Brown have placed the study guide online and translated into Spanish for Mexican audiences, educators and students. The website address will be published in the program for the run of the play and the one-year national Mexican tour. NBC-Universal has agreed to re-release the film in Mexico City during the run of the play.

“My goal in bringing Zoot Suit to Mexico,” says Martinez, “was to use theatre to ameliorate the historical dismissal and denegation of ‘Chicanos’ by Mexicans and position Chicano culture as a prominent arts movement that resonates as strongly with Mexicans as it does among Mexican immigrants in the U.S. Politically, the discourse that surrounds border issues has traditionally been a white-European/Mexican binary. I strongly believe that plays like Zoot Suit have the potential to open up that dialogue to include Chicanos or, Mexican immigrants in the US as we are called here, as a major political and social force in US-Mexican relations.

To provide a more in-depth discussion in Mexico for the themes of the play, Martinez is organizing a Chicano Theatre symposium with the National University of Mexico (UNAM) from June 24-26. Her outreach in Mexico also includes working with Claremont College Alumni residing in Mexico City to create the first Mexican and Central America chapter. The first event is slated for May 22.

Born in Mexico, Martinez immigrated to the U.S. at a very young age. It is this very personal tie to her place of birth and her passionate belief in the power of theatre to educate, enlighten and spark social change that was the impetus for this transnational project.

Contact:

Alma Martinez, M.F.A., Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Theatre, Pomona College & U.S. – Mexico Project Coordinator, The National Theatre Company of Mexico