SUMMARY: It's the story of a real-life murder trial and the so-called Zoot Suit Riots, set amid rampant discrimination in 1940s Los Angeles. A play called "Zoot Suit" was a cultural phenomenon in the 1970s and '80s, launching the careers of many Chicano actors. Now it's in revival at the theater where it all began. Jeffrey Brown reports talks to writer and director Luis Valdez.
JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour): It is a deeply American story, a Mexican-American story, “Zoot Suit” the play, set in Los Angeles in the 1940s, amid rampant discrimination, a real-life murder trial and the so-called Zoot Suit Riots.
ACTOR: The grand jury has just indicted you all for the same identical crime, not just you four, the whole entire 38th Street Gang.
JEFFREY BROWN: And “Zoot Suit,” the cultural phenomenon, reaching from its premiere in 1978 at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, to Broadway, to a 1981 film, and now, 38 years later, to a revival at the theater where it began.
Its writer and director, then and now, is Luis Valdez.
LUIS VALDEZ, Writer/Director, “Zoot Suit”: I believe in entertainment. I love entertainment, you know? But I love it with a purpose. I want people to come out of here thinking about what they saw, and perhaps reassessing what's happening in their own lives with their families.
And, more than anything I hope that people leave here with hope and inspiration.
JEFFREY BROWN: Valdez received a National Medal of the Arts from President Obama in 2015 for — quote — “illuminating the human spirit in the face of social injustice.”
He spent his early years in a family of migrant workers.
Is it correct what I read, that you were 6 when you first discovered your love of theater in a camp?
LUIS VALDEZ: In a camp, labor camp, I got hooked, yes. I auditioned, and I won my first role. Unfortunately, the week of the show, we were evicted from the labor camp where we were staying, and I was never in the play. So, that left a big gap, a big hole in my chest, you know?