On Broadway: Musical Theater Has Tackled Racism for Decades, Albeit Covertly at Times

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One of my favorite Broadway production numbers is "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," from The King and I. It's the long, lavish ballet in which children and courtiers entertain the king of Thailand with a home-grown performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Devised by Jerome Robbins, it uses the stylized dance-drama of Southeast Asia to tell the story of Topsy and Eliza and "King" Simon Legree--keeping intact its anti-slavery slant to prick the conscience of the real king.

I like it for a lot of reasons--the unembarrassed Eastern sonorities in Richard Rodgers' music, the sly humor of Oscar Hammerstein's narration, the adroit appropriation of Asian movement, and the wit of Robbins' cross-cultural translation of an all-American subject. But mostly I like how its musical-within-a-musical form winkingly mimics the way Rodgers and Hammerstein saw The King and I, and many of their other shows: as sneaky, easy-to-digest lessons about tolerance.

If you could ask every person attending a Broadway musical tonight why he or she is in the audience, not one would answer, "Because musicals have been a force for unity and understanding among the races." We don't go to musicals to be edified. But, like the king watching "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," we usually don't realize we're being asked to think until it's too late, and a lesson about what's right has already taken root in our brains. The 1970 musical Purlie wickedly lampooned a southern segregationist. "While we were laughing, we were changing," said the daughter of its co-author, Ossie Davis, during a post-performance discussion at the City Center "Encores" series in New York.

This is not to say that Broadway musicals have always, or even frequently, attempted to address issues of race in a serious way. The overwhelming majority are embarrassingly--if sometimes deliciously--empty-headed. And Broadway, like America, has plenty to be ashamed of when it comes to its treatment of minorities. From the early days, when black entertainers could not work unless they were willing to parody their own identities by donning blackface, to not so long ago, when Asian performers had to picket in Times Square to extract a promise that the role of a Eurasian character in Miss Saigon would not be reserved for whites only, musicals have reflected and perpetuated the racial rifts and injustices of American society.

And not just backstage. Through the decades, American musicals, created even today mostly by white artists and attended still mostly by white audiences, have blithely traded in insulting racial stereotypes and even epithets. Most of us are aware that 19th-century minstrel shows helped create and propagate the racist image of the silly, shiftless, shuffling black man. But how many of us realize that the patriotic "gunboat" musicals popular at the turn of the century regularly put wily, double-dealing Japanese villains before the public? (Ugly examples of both are documented by John Bush Jones in his social history of the musical, Our Musicals, Ourselves.) We may smugly say that musicals have come a long way since those bad old days, but then we come face-to-face with the cringe-inducing Asian (well, pseudo-Asian) slave-traders in Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Such sins notwithstanding, the musical stage can also be credited--paradoxically--with providing a consistent drumbeat against the racism, subtle and open, prevailing in American life. …