Zoot Suit was written by Luis Valdez, a Mexican-American playwright and director who is widely known as the father of Chicano theater. It weaves together the story of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trials with the Zoot Suit riots, both of which took place during World War II.
The Sleepy Lagoon murder occurred in 1942 and an entire Hispanic gang, the 38th Street Gang, was wrongfully charged with the crime. During the months leading up to the conviction of the Sleepy Lagoon murderer, white Los Angeles civilians mercilessly mistreated "Zoot-Suiters" (nicknamed for their puffy, flared pants), pulling them from steet cars, kicking them out of restaurants, and dragging them out of movie theaters. Valdez's play examines the racial prejudice that motivated both the wrongful conviction of the members of the 38th Street Gang and the Zoot Suit riots.
After debuting in Los Angeles in 1978, the play transferred to Broadway. Valdez directed both productions, and the play was only the second play written and directed by a Latino to appear on Broadway. Edward James Olmos was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance.