Director Manuel Pickett has vivid memories of the first time he saw Luis Valdez's original production of "Zoot Suit" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
"I was taken aback," Pickett said quietly, smiling as we sat in the empty theater at Sacramento State. "I had never seen a Chicano production done to that extent before, and it was very impressive.
"I expected Luis Valdez to put on one heck of a show he always does but never to that extent."
Valdez's "Zoot Suit" is a fictionalized version of the actual Sleepy Lagoon murder trial near Los Angeles in 1943. A group of Chicano youths were charged with a murder they didn't commit; the Zoot Suit Riots occurred after they were found guilty in a sham trial. The verdict was later reversed.
Besides the spectacular zoot suit costumes, there are songs, music and a mythical character, El Pachuco (Edward James Olmos in the original), who functions as a Greek chorus. Debuting in 1979 in Los Angeles, it went on to Broadway, where it was the first Chicano- written play to appear there.
Pickett will direct Valdez's classic piece of American theater in a production opening Friday. Pickett is retiring from CSUS after 32 years running the Chicano Theater program. This will be his last show in that capacity, though it won't entirely be his swan song. Pickett will return to direct a show each year until the university finds someone to head the program.
"I would never have gotten involved in theater if I hadn't seen it as a way, politically, of teaching my people about our struggles," Pickett said.
He said there were also struggles within the department. Some faculty members were not supportive of ethnic theater, though those opinions were not indicative of the whole department.
"The department here has always looked at the ethnic theater program as an important part of what they offer, more than most universities or colleges," Pickett said.
"The fun parts have been the productions, the students," he added. "Bringing the community onto campus started off very slowly but has increased and increased until we've had many sold-out houses."
While filling Pickett's shoes is an enormous task, finding someone who can approach his commitment is even more unlikely. Before coming to California State University, Sacramento, in 1980, Pickett created complementary theater companies in Salinas and Gilroy while teaching part time at community colleges near each town. He had worked with Valdez's influential El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista and was impassioned by the power of political theater.
"I love going to the theater, reading plays, exploring different genres," Pickett said. "But I'm in it for political reasons because I see how theater impacts the audience. That's what motivates me to continue with it."
Pickett believes making this type of political theater has a greater context, the struggle for equality.
"The struggle for me is a lifetime endeavor. It's not something that ends with the job," Pickett said. "It's not something that ends with anything else but death. That's a choice I made a long time ago, and that's what keeps me doing what I'm doing."