Historical Analysis of the plays ‘Zoot Suit’, ‘Fences’ and ‘Laramie Project’





Historical Analysis of the plays ‘Zoot Suit’, ‘Fences’ and ‘Laramie Project


There are certain events in history where a particular circumstance brings forth various ideologies, beliefs and values that prevail in the culture present at the time of occurrence. The circumstances act as lightning rods of the culture, enabling and increasing attraction and clarifying on the convictions and philosophies of the people. Major historical films attempt to replicate this significant times. By paying close attention to the words of the people, films enable the audience to hear the prevailing concepts that go to define a culture. Zoot Suit, Fences are films that narrate on the prevailing concepts of the early 20th century American society while the Laramie Project captures the culture of the 21st century community. This paper gives a detailed examination of the various techniques and devices employed to transform the cultural values of the respective societies to film. Though representing divergent societal factions and period, all three films base their influential event on democratic liberties. Theatre performance of the three films shows the exact characteristics and actions of the different cultures that led to a liberal revolution.

Historical Context of the Films

In order to understand the reasons behind the diverse choice of techniques and attributes employed by directors and creators in the plays, it is imperative to first comprehend the historical context, in which each film is based.


The film is based on the life events of Frederick August Kittel otherwise known as August Wilson, a character born to an African American mother and a German father. At sixteen years of age, Wilson was accused of plagiarism in his writing leading to suspension and later expulsion from the school. The character dropped out of public schooling and took it upon himself to educate himself. The character engaged in black movement politics while working on his literary skills in poetry and short story writing. The character later diversified into play writing. Wilson took up the responsibility of documenting the plights of the African American during the 20th century American society. Fences represents the character’s records of the 150-1960 decade, specifically during the Vietnamese and Korean wars. These wars represent the particular events in the American culture behind the initiation of Pre-Civil Rights Movements.

Zuit Soot

The film is based on the complex racial relationships present in 1940 Los Angeles that led to drastic political and social changes in the state. In the summer of 1943, the state of Los Angeles documented its worst racial conflict that ran for ten full days. The event encompassed a riot by Hispanic Mexican youths as retaliation to Military men who unfairly dragged them out of popular public restaurants, cinemas, cafes and bars and viciously harassed them. The film captures this event by reflecting on how an influx of immigrants and a booming economy led to the growth of a daring, affluent and conspicuous Mexican generation. The generation in its unique fashion and interactive characteristics became problematic to the state and nation necessitating the need for military action. Zoot Suit captures the Hispanic subculture of 1940 in its bigotry, despise and hatred of White America.

The Laramie Project

The play captures the sentiments of the populace in the district of Laramie, Wyoming after the inhumane beating and eventual murder of a young college student. In 1998, gay student Matthew Sheppard in his admission to the University of Wyoming was beaten on the head, tied to a fence and left for dead in the midnight cold. After eighteen hours of the torturous event, Matthew Sheppard was discovered and taken to hospital where he died after several days. The film structures its features after over four hundred interviews with around a hundred residents of the district. The directors of the play display how the crime set forth liberal debates on issues revolving around religion, class, education, homosexuality and economics. Structured as a documentary, the Laramie Project relives the event that brought forth calls for sexual freedom in the 21st century.

Comparison and Contrasts

The plays ‘Zoot Suit’, ‘Fences’ and ‘Laramie Project’ belong to the genre known today as documentary theatre. This is because the narratives are based on real events as opposed to fiction. Therefore, the films employ various techniques such as ethnodrama, natural performance, staged oral history and conversational dramatism amongst many other approaches.

Natural Performance

Common to all three films is the use of natural performances. Essentially, the films encompass the re-enacting of first order actions that all come into life in the scripts. In Zoot Suit, this is seen through the character Henry Reyna. The character has an alter ego in El Pachuco, similar to how youths in the day appeared upright in their attires, but were heavily engaged in organized crime. El Pachuco is a senior member of a youth urban gang whose credits result to the ideation of his walk. The Pachuco walk displayed by the central character and other supporting actors is an aspect of natural performance that teaches on the Hispanics presented themselves in Los Angeles streets.

In Fences, natural performance is seen in the attitude and language of August Wilson. The character employs post slavery abolishment African American culture that was characterized blues songs. The play happens in one place where the character together with supporting actors relive the Negro culture through key rhythmic riffs. For instance, in Troy’s payday, the film mirrors the society by a musical celebration where Troy and Bono repeat phrases and lyrics. In act two, the fourth scene, Bono drinks and sings to comfort himself over his estranged life.

In the Laramie Project, police officer Reggie Fluty bursts in tears and runs after she is confirmed as HIV negative. The performance in this scene relives the compelling actions of an individual free from societal prejudice because of their avoidance of STI infection.  There is similarity in the use of natural performance in accordance to cultural attributes present to the characters. Divergence is in the actuation of the scenes given that circumstances and message intended are different.


El Pachuco is a clear representation of the flamboyant, cool, violent, and rebellious Hispanic Mexican present in the Zoot Suit Riots. The character is set up in a way that he incarnates the attributes of defiance and style synonymous with the average Mexican engaged in organized crime. For instance, consider the point where the character stands outside the El Paso facility. Pachuco stands tall and conceited next to his polished Chevy Coupe. He wears an oversized leather coat that reaches his knee height. At the centre of the cost is a hanging feather that glides in accordance to the cold spring breeze. The attire and body posture of the character is a physical representation of the young Mexican-American subculture. A civilization where coats are brightly colored and language is a mixture of English and Spanish, otherwise known as Calo.

The character of Troy is equally a representation of the oppressed, less confident, meek and troubled African American in Fences. The character lives in a town with no infrastructure and resources. He spends most of his life moving from shack to shack, stealing and serving time in prison just as seen in many black men. Troy continuously works for the white men in the fence, but never reaps from the work. The extent of oppression is seen where Troy and Bono celebrate over their payment in song. When Troy moves to play baseball in the major league, he is immensely troubled over leaving his work and his eventual performance now that he was away from the Black community. Despite having the skill, he is not confident and is depressed as in his statement, “Ain’t anything wrong with talking about death. That’s part of life. Everybody gonna die. You gonna die, I’m gonna die. Bono’s gonna die. Hell, we all gonna die.”The shortened language not only captures the language of the African America, but also shows their weakened spirit and low attitude.

The Laramie Project deviates from the other films, as there is no clear characterization of actors. The film is structured as a documentary because it draws from public record. There is no central character. The Laramie subculture is established by the general emotions of all the characters, who share stories, perceptions and an understanding of who they are in terms of sexual orientation. In the La Jolla production of the event, the response given by all actors are endowed by first order memories. Language is sympathetic, low and weak. Assumption is that the characters attempt to appear objective despite the heavy homophobic atmosphere present in the district. The subculture in the play is defined more through the scenic shots of the physical town.


The technique refers to a methodology of narrating personal experiences through descriptive theatre. All three films employ this technique, but the Laramie Project differentiates by displaying experiences on an interpersonal level. The play employs allusion as a flashback to depict how the city has changed since the murder of Matthew Sheppard. In the play, the character, Jedadiah Schultz states,” It is difficult to talk about Laramie at the present.” Then he continues: “If you would have questioned me earlier, I would have answered you Laramie is a gorgeous town.” Things have evidently changed.” The allusion gives a comparison of the past and the present in an internalized fashion. Tension plays inside an individual concerning the homophobic environment.

Fences and Zoot Suit display tension in the society at intra-personal levels all centering on inter-cultural conflicts. Zoot Suit employs flashback to prepare the audience for the cultural tension present in the play. For instance, El Pachuco takes Henry on a small memory trip of their home. On Saturday nights, the two would proudly wear their Zoot Uniforms and head to the Sleepy Lagoon to dance and make merry. The flashback was meant to mock Henry how was at the moment dawning Navy uniforms waiting to be shipped to war. The mockery shows the hatred behind the Zoot Suit image that was projected on the White America responsible for the beating of Henry. Fences employs conversational dramatism to structure the cultural tension present in the play. In act one, scene one, Troy and Bono head to their local base to drink and converse after receiving their pay. As they talk, Bono reflects on how Troy approached Mr. Rand to ask why Black workers were not allowed to drive trucks. The minor reflection shows the estranged relationship between White Americans and African Americans.


Documentary theatre unlike other film genres put a lot of stock behind the production of scenes because they message they convey move beyond entertainment, location and time. The cultural essence in the films is derived from truth or facts alone giving theatre a divergent reality. The three films show the exact characteristics and actions of the different cultures that led to a liberal revolution. Common to all three films is the use of natural performances. There is clear re-enacting of first order actions that all come into life in the scripts. Divergence is in the actuation of the natural performances is because the circumstances and message intended are different, as they are derived from different cultural conflicts. Equally, common to Fences and Zoot Suit is the use of characterization to display the physical characteristics of people present in the respective societies in terms of fashion, behaviors and personality. Laramie Project deviates from this approach, as there is no clear characterization of individuals. The process is vague and only captured at a societal level. In ethnodrama, Fences and Zoot Suit show that cultural conflict manifests externally from an individual. This is opposite in the Laramie Project where tension is felt inside. This is a clear indication of the drift between the 20thand 21st centuries where in one conflicts are group-based and the other tension is internalized. Social matters today concern individualism as basis of democracy.



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