Theater of the political
Manuel J. Pickett directs a new production of the groundbreaking Chicano musical Zoot Suit—45 years after its author pushed him into a life of stage
For Manuel J. Pickett, a retired Sacramento State University professor of Chicano Theatre and artistic director of Sacramento’s Teatro Espejo company, a long career in Chicano theater started with a favor for a guy he didn’t know very well.
Pickett was an 18-year-old Fresno musician in 1968—and a budding political activist for Chicano rights—when a man he’d only recently met asked if the teen’s band would play for his wedding.
“I went back to the band and said, ’Hey, this guy is very well-known, he’s politically involved, and he doesn’t have any money,’” Pickett said.
Pickett agreed to work free for his band every weekend for a month if they’d agree to help the man.
The broke bridegroom was Luis Valdez, the founder of El Teatro Campesino, a man who has been called “the father of Chicano Theater.” Valdez is probably best known outside the Chicano-Latino community as the director of the 1987 Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba. He’s also the author of Zoot Suit, the production currently being staged by Sacramento’s Teatro Espejo at The Colonial Theatre.
Pickett’s working relationship with the play’s author—and his own future in theater—started the day after Valdez’s wedding, when Pickett went back to pick up some equipment.
“Luis was sitting on the steps of this abandoned church where they’d been performing, and he said, ’Listen, I want you to join our theater company,’” Pickett remembered.
Up to that point, Pickett had no intention of getting involved in theater. Rather, he was looking for a way to combine his music with his political activities—organizing with the United Farm Workers and activism with the Brown Berets. But thanks to his decision to take up Valdez on his offer, four-and-a-half decades later, Pickett is now the unofficial dean of Chicano-Latino theater in the Sacramento area, and he’s directing Zoot Suit.
The musical Zoot Suit chronicles the murder trial and wrongful conviction of 17 young Mexican-American zoot-suit-wearing men in the Sleepy Lagoon murder of José Gallardo Díaz.
Díaz, whose unconscious body was found near a local swimming hole in August 1942 with a fracture to the base of his skull, later died from his injuries.
Nine of the arrested youth were convicted of second-degree murder; the remaining eight were found guilty on lesser charges. The convictions were reversed in 1944, but the case led to the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943.
The riots, which took place in Los Angeles, were the result of fights between white U.S. Navy and Marine soldiers and Latino youth, the latter of whom wore flashy suits and dresses to dance to swing music. Related riots also took place in New York City, Chicago, Detroit and Harlem.
“It was one of the biggest racially charged trials of that time,” Pickett said.
And, according to Pickett, the riots were fueled by the media—specifically the Los Angeles Herald. World War II wasn’t going very well at the time, he said, and the media wanted to deflect attention to the home front. Japanese-Americans were interned, but Mexican-American youths were close at hand—and they had an identifiable subculture.
Then, zoot-suit-wearing youths were accused of being “communists imported from Mexico,” said Pickett. “They put such a scare into the public—especially in Los Angeles, since they’re so close to Mexico—that it caused these Zoot Suit Riots.”
The riots and the trial became the source material for Valdez’s play.
Zoot Suit, first produced in 1979, was also the first Chicano play produced on Broadway; Edward James Olmos played the main role. The production uses actual transcripts from the murder trial, as well as both songs from the period and incidental music.
It is, in short, exactly the sort of play Pickett would produce—political, historical and filled with the sounds, movement and ideas of Chicano and Latino culture. And that would be true even if the play’s author wasn’t the guy who got him to act the first time.
“I told Luis at the beginning, I’d do music, I’ll do sound,” Pickett said. “I’d been playing in bands, but I’d always had something—a horn, a guitar—between me and the audience.”
That changed one day in Mexico City, when El Teatro Campesino had an audience waiting in Chapultepec Park, and one of the actors had laryngitis.
“I said, ’I’m not an actor,’ and Luis said, “’You are now.’”
And so he was, traveling the country with the group—“12 people in a Dodge van, and we had the stage in there, too,” Pickett said.
For his peers, that authentic street-theater experience adds credibility to Pickett’s work.
“He began on the street with Teatro Campesino and then was an actor, and then … became an educator,” said Ray Tatar, artistic director at California Stage Company and a frequent artistic collaborator with Pickett. “Now that he’s retired, he’s bringing all that expertise back to the community.”
Tatar and Pickett have shared their expertise in a number of joint productions, including an acclaimed staging of Women of Juarez in 2010.
Andrea “Ya-Ya” Porras, who went from student to collaborator with Pickett, agrees. She first met him when she was a teenager attending a Chicano theater camp at Sacramento State. Within a few years, she was one of his students at the university, presenting for other teens at the same camp.
“We’ve made more than 20 works together,” said Porras, who has since graduated and is now a local artist, actress, poet and choreographer. This summer, she directed a play in Teatro Espejo’s festival of Chicano one-act plays.
“He invited a number of his former students to take their places as directors of their own work,” Porras said. “He taught us to take it on the road, take it to the Capitol: ’Let’s get the work out there.’”
That’s still Pickett’s agenda—not to mention the mission of Teatro Espejo. The main point, of course, is to provide quality theatrical productions that reflect Chicano-Latino theatrical tradition. This production of Zoot Suit is intended to raise money for the group to continue its cultural education mission, training actors, technicians and directors to advance Latino culture locally.
“Eventually, we’d like to create a performing-arts center, so we can have a home base, a training center, for the programs that we do,” said Pickett.
Teatro Espejo is currently collaborating with two other area Latino arts groups—La Raza Galeria Posada, the well-known resource for visual artists and poets, and Calidanza Dance Company, a new dance troupe—to form an alliance for Chicano-Latino arts.
“It’s a tough time for arts groups,” said Pickett. “We’ve learned there’s strength in unity, and we’re forming this alliance, because we feel that as united artists we have a better chance of surviving.”
If Pickett’s history—with Teatro Espejo, Sac State’s Latino-theater program and with El Teatro Campesino—proves anything, it’s that the arts have staying power, especially when backed by the commitment of political beliefs.
Back in the day, Pickett said, “[y]ou had to be committed to political theater. Otherwise, why in the world would you do that to yourself? But the political involvement was something I’ve really committed myself to. It’s what drives me and what drives my art. This is a lifetime endeavor.”
And it all started because he did a favor for a guy he barely knew.
“I had to go back for a guitar cord, and Luis said, ’Hey, c’mere!’” Pickett said. “Isn’t that crazy? And here I am.”