Zoot Suit Summary

Luis Valdez

Zoot Suit

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Zoot Suit Summary

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The play centers on Henry Reyna and the 38th Street Gang. They attend a dance, and while there, a fight breaks out between them and a rival group, the Downey Gang, after Henry’s brother Rudy stirs up trouble. After the fight, the gang leaves the building.

Henry and his girlfriend Della then drive to Sleepy Lagoon, a local reservoir where young people meet to swim and socialize. While there, Henry observes a commotion over at the Williams Ranch. Mistakenly thinking the noise is coming from a party, Henry and Della head to the house. What they don’t know is that earlier in the day, the homeowners were harassed by members of the Downey Gang, and when the pair arrives at the house, the Williams family mistakes them for members of the Downey Gang. Henry and Della run away, not realizing that Jose Williams had died earlier that night.

Days later, Henry and the rest of the 38th Street Gang are arrested for the murder of Jose Williams. Though the evidence clearly points elsewhere—the Downey Gang was responsible for the death—a jury convicts the gang members of the murder.

During his stay in prison, Henry develops a romantic interest in Alice, a reporter who is covering the case and acting as an advocate for the gang members. Their romance develops despite the fact that Henry is still involved with Della. Their lawyer is drafted into the army, and furthermore, Henry spends the rest of his time at San Quentin in isolation.

While the gang members are in prison, waiting for their case to be appealed, the Zoot Suit Riots break out across the city on account of the racial tension caused by the case. During the Riot, Henry’s brother has his zoot suit ripped off.

With the help of the people working on their behalf, the boys win their appeal, and are released from prison. Henry rejoins his family and plans to join the Marines.

The play offers three possible outcomes for Henry, and allows the audience to decide his fate. In the first path, Henry continues down the road of criminal behavior, becomes involved with drugs, and dies in jail from the stress of that lifestyle. In the second possible outcome, Henry dies during the war, though he is heralded as a war hero for his actions and posthumously receives a Medal of Honor. In the final potential outcome, Henry lives a fairly normal life, gets married to Della, and has five children.

Zoot Suit depicts the events leading up to the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943 in Los Angeles. The play is based on the real-life events of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder. In August 1942, the body of Jose Diaz was discovered along a road near the Williams Ranch. He had been stabbed twice and had a head injury. Though he was still alive when his body was found, Diaz never regained consciousness, and died in the hospital a short time later. The specific circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear to this day.

During the investigation into his death, hundreds of young men of Latino descent were brought in for questioning. All told, twenty-two people were prosecuted. They had seven different defense attorneys for the case which was titled People v. Zammora et al.

The case lacked much of the evidence these sorts of trials usually feature, including the murder weapon, which was never produced. Seventeen of the men on trial were found guilty, with the sentences for their assorted crimes ranging from one year to life in prison.

The ruling was eventually reversed in October of 1944, thanks to the efforts of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee. Sadly, many of the members of the gang, including Henry, went on to commit, and be convicted of, other crimes later in life, and have spent time in prison.

Due to racial profiling, members of the 38th Street Gang were convicted of murder despite the lack of evidence. The young men were all sent to prison, including the notorious San Quentin prison. The convictions were eventually overturned, and the judge who presided over the trial was criticized for his bias and mishandling of the case.

Zoot Suit received positive reviews when it first debuted in Los Angeles in 1979. The production was also well-received by the audience, with sol-out performances and  extended standing ovations.

The play did not meet such positivity when it moved to New York, however. The production, directed by Valdez, only ran for five weeks on Broadway.

Valdez also produced and directed a film version of his play.

In 2008, a Thirtieth Anniversary production of the play that included involvement from many original cast members had a successful two-week run.