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Zoot Suit (Luiz Valdez)

April 24, 2010

I’d heard of the Zoot Suit Riots before reading this play, but I didn’t know a whole lot about them. To be honest, I didn’t even know where they happened (which is quite appalling, considering I’m from Southern California and all)…which makes me wonder about the aims of American education. But shifting my focus a bit…

Formally, I really enjoyed this play. It was interesting and thought-provoking, and I thought Valdez employed some very fresh strategies throughout. Plays that are based on historical events run the risk of being kind of flat — sort of reporting the facts without really thoroughly developing the characters. This play found a nice balance between the political and the aesthetic, and it really worked to convey the messages. I thought Valdez’s point was really interesting. I mean, of course there’s the aspect of the play that concerns historical events (hence the newspaper headlines that various characters spout off at different points in the play), but there’s also the aspect of the play that connects those historical events to contemporary Chican@ life. Pachuco almost ends the play at a falsely happy Hollywood moment, but brings the lights back up and says:

But life ain’t that way, Hank.
The barrio’s still out there, waiting and wanting.
The cops are still tracking us down like dogs.
The gangs are still killing each other,
Families are barely surviving,
And there in your own backyard…life goes on. (88)

The idea that “gangs are still killing each other” is one that has powerful resonance in today’s America (especially in highly urbanized cities like LA). Zoot Suit makes this connection explicit for the reader to highlight the relevance of what happened ~70 years ago (egad, was it that long ago?) to life today. Injustice is still alive and thriving, but the message that Henry learns through these events — that there is hope, and that family is ever-important — is still relevant. The play’s ending, a sort of choose-your-own-adventure ending with three different life endings for Henry — a return to prison and a drug-induced death, a trip overseas with the military and a soldier’s death, and a more ordinary life lived happily-ever-after with wife and kids — presents a series of options for young people who are involved in gangs. Valdez’s play hinges on the idea that there is a choice to be made. It sort of asks the reader what they want their life to look like, how they want their story to be remembered. Burn out? Hero? Family (wo)man? And inherent in that choice is an invitation to change the direction that one’s life is currently headed.

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