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‘Zoot Suit’ comes home

‘Zoot Suit’ comes home


October 10, 2002
sentinel staff writer

When the musical “Zoot Suit” opened in Los Angeles nearly 25 years ago, it made a huge impression.
Especially on a 5-year-old boy.
“I was so little, I didn’t really understand what was happening,” said Kinan Valdez, son of the play’s author, Luis Valdez.
“But I was haunted by the stripping and beating of the pachuco by U.S. servicemen. It was really quite traumatic for me.”
Now Valdez is the director of the Northern California premier of “Zoot Suit,” opening today for a week of previews, followed by a five-week run at El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista.
In a story drawn from a history L.A. tried to forget, “Zoot Suit” is about the Sleepy Hollow murder trials of 1942, and the riots that followed.
“It’s about a travesty of justice,” Valdez said. “The accused, 22 young Mexican-American men, were found guilty in a kind of freak show atmosphere.”
Led by the elusive character of El Pachuco, “Zoot Suit” tells the story of Hank Reyna, one of the accused, through ’40s swing music and the Brechtian technique of the “living newspaper.”
The play premiered in 1979, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, in the fertile soil of a growing Chicano-identity movement.
“When this play opened, it was a healing moment for L.A.,” Valdez said. “The floodgates opened up.”
Nearly 25 years later, the Northern California premier opens at a different time and place.
“‘Zoot Suit’ needs to be out there right now as we’re facing the loss of civil and constitutional rights,” Valdez said. “We are, again, in a political milieu of war hysteria and xenophobia.”
While the trials and riots unfolded in Southern California, pachucos and their zoot suits carried their distinctive attitude, calo slang and flamboyant pride up and down the California coast.
“It really brings up history for people in this area,” Valdez said.
“A few local people have come by to tell us their memories of wearing their zoot suits to San Juan Bautista to swing dance at the local community center.”
El Teatro Campesino was founded in 1965 by Luis Valdez as a tool for organizing and raising funds for striking farmworkers in Delano. In 1968 El Teatro left the fields to address issues of Chicano identity.
Settling in San Juan Bautista in 1971, the theater company has consistently produced challenging, entertaining and stimulating theater, music and dance.
They are best known for their revolving duo of Christmas plays, “La Virgen de Tepeyac” and “La Pastorela,” performed every December inside of the Mission San Juan Bautista.
Drawing on actors from San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as a core troupe of local actors, El Teatro Campesino has evolved into a family effort.
The cast and crew of “Zoot Suit” includes Joaquin and Anahuac Valdez (Kinan’s brothers), and Katrina Valdez, daughter of Daniel Valdez, who starred in the movie version of the play.
The play’s original production was full of family members as well. The music for the play was written by the legendary Lalo Guerrero, cousin of Kinan’s grandfather.
Why did it take the Valdez family so long to bring “Zoot Suit” home?
“Because of its size and scope, it was virtually untouchable for small regional theaters, which is what we are,” Valdez said.
“We’re trying to come back to the simplicity of the piece and show that it can be done.”
Contact Nancy Redwine atnredwine (at)
If you go

WHAT: ‘Zoot Suit,’ musical theater about the Sleepy Hollow murder trial.
WHEN: Previews, Oct. 10-18. Opens Saturday, Oct. 19. Through Nov. 24.
WHERE: El Teatro Campesino Playhouse, 705 Fourth St., San Juan Bautista.
COST: $8 to $16. Group rates available.
TICKETS: 623-2512 or

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