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"Zoot Suit" Returns to Pomona College

Back by popular demand, Zoot Suit is returning to Pomona’s Seaver Theatre for a four-day run from February 5 to 8, including a special performance and mini-conference for local high school and middle school students.

The play, which is set during the 1942 “Sleepy Lagoon” murder trial and subsequent Zoot Suit riots, ran two weekends last April, but sold out before opening night. “A lot of people, especially people on our campus, didn’t get to see it,” explains Theatre Professor Alma Martinez.

The lost chance to see the landmark play was felt even deeper because of the special nature of the production: It was the first time the play had been staged in the Los Angeles area in 30 years. Written by Luis Valdez, Zoot Suit premiered on stage in 1978 and went on to become the first Chicano play on Broadway and, in 1981, the first all-Chicano Hollywood feature film. Martinez played Lupe, the lead character’s sister, in the original production and film.

The play, which focuses on a group of Chicano youths who are accused of a crime they didn’t commit, is still relevant today, especially with younger audiences. “The themes in the play resonate because the characters are about the same age [as college and high school students today, who are] dealing with similar issues like racism, stereotyping, peer pressure, cliques, rivalry, war, relationships and the culture of music,” says cast member Lisette Mendez, a junior at Pitzer who is playing the romantic lead, Della, for the second time.

“It’s really a character-driven play where students can discuss identity and pride, and the role that defiance can play in both of those,” says Vicki Tessier ‘91, the visual and performing arts teaching specialist for Pomona Unified School District who worked with Martinez to create the conference for Fremont Middle School and Garey High School students. “Specifically for Pomona Unified, since we have a majority Latino population, it’s also a piece of their cultural heritage. This is a play where students can start discussing the power of theater for social change.”

More than 300 students are visiting Pomona for the Zoot Suit mini-conference on February 5. They’ll view the play and then take part in breakout sessions with theatre students, discussing speaking points focusing on the theme of “Identity, Pride and Defiance: Where Do You Stand?”

“The kids can talk one-on-one about the themes of the play, how it relates to their lives, their education, the ambiance they live in, questions about social equity, judicial parity and how it affects their lives,” says Martinez.

Attorney James Blancarte ‘75 will also deliver a keynote speech at the conference.

Staging the play eight months after its initial run has proven challenging for Martinez and her cast. With more than half the original cast graduating in 2008, Martinez had to replace 20 of 35 cast members. The original cast also had 12 weeks to rehearse; this time around, the new cast has only five weeks inconveniently interrupted by the holiday break.

But you’ll hear no complaints from cast members: “Doing the play again has been an amazing experience because I realized how rare it is to have the opportunity to perform the play,” says Mendez. “Working with a new cast is great because they bring something new and fresh to the play, especially their enthusiasm.”

Zoot Suit will be staged on Thursday, February 5 through Saturday, February 7, at 8 p.m. Matinee performances are on Saturday, February 7 and Sunday, February 8, at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $10 for general admission and $5 for faculty, staff, students and senior citizens, and are available through the Seaver Theatre box office (909-621-8525).