‘When we don’t write our own story’

Scene from an early production of the opera Porgy and Bess, shown during the second week of MTW’s Black Broadway History event

Musical Theatre West probes Black Broadway’s past during Black History Month

Musical Theatre West (MTW) may not be able to stage live shows right now, but for Black History Month, it’s offering a deep dive into Broadway – Black Broadway, that is. 

Each Friday in February, Stevi Meredith – a writer, coach and director of plays and musicals – takes viewers live on a new journey exploring musicals with Black characters.

The series began earlier this month examining 1920s Broadway performer Florence Mills. It will continue this Friday, Feb. 19 and next week, Feb. 26, exploring musicals such as Hello, Dolly! Guys & DollsThe WizRagtimeThe Color Purple and even Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2015 hit. 

Viewers can visit MTW’s website to view each week’s 30-minute program on Fridays at 7 p.m. and participate in a virtual chat. 

This week’s event – which debuted last Friday, Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. but is available to view all week – explores two loved but racially problematic musicals that originated in the 1920s: Show Boat and the opera Porgy and Bess.

Meredith, who is African American, called both shows examples of “how the Black narrative is shaped when we don’t write our own story.” 

Meredith begins by confessing that thought she had seen Show Boat two or three times, she knows the songs but had blocked out the story due to a disturbing scene.

The musical highlights two characters who work on a showboat on the Mississippi River – Joe, who is white, and his wife Julie who is mixed race, making the marriage illegal there at the time. At one point, Joe cuts Julie’s hand and sucks her blood to prove to authorities he has Black blood in him.

Consulting the book, “The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical” by Warren Hoffman, Meredith points out that Show Boat can be seen in one of two ways. The first is as innovative theatre, exploring alcoholism, race relations, miscegenation and spousal abandonment for the first time in a musical.

But the other way to see Show Boat, Meredith says, is as a racist musical that demeans African Americans, portraying them in subservient jobs, speaking pidgin English and not developing as characters over the show’s three-hour run time. 

Though some of Show Boat’s songs, such as “Ol’ Man River,” are well-known, at least one has a questionable history. The opening song, “Cotton Blossom,” currently includes the lyrics, “Here we all work while de white folks play.” 

However, the “we” in the song had been “colored folk” in 1946 and “darkies” in the 1936 movie, Meredith notes. And in the original 1927 lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, it was the ‘N-word.’

Meredith comments on how the first thing early audiences would have heard when the curtain rose was the N-word. She adds that the 1966 revival of the musical completely eliminated the Black chorus in the opening number.

MTW manager Michael Betts (left) and presenter Stevi Meredith (right) during the second week of MTW’s Black Broadway History virtual event, with chat comment by viewer Leilani Brooks.

Similarly, Porgy and Bess, an opera that debuted in 1935, has had a “convoluted, sometimes troubling history” over its eight decades, Meredith says.  

Set in a segregated South Carolina fishing community, the story follows the disabled Porgy as he tries to save Bess from a violent lover and a drug dealer, as Meredith describes, perpetuating racial stereotypes of poverty, drug-taking and violence along the way. 

“The fact that the show has little more than suffering says, to me, that the show was written for a white audience to view the suffering of the Black race and feel better about themselves when they leave the theatre,” Meredith says. 

Meredith notes that writer James Baldwin called Porgy and Bess “a white man’s version of Negro life.” She cites another essayist who observes that the opera is the main performing opportunity for many Black operatic singers but requires them to wear rags and embody stereotypes. 

Meredith doesn’t call for an erasure of these problematic shows but says they should be taught in historical context. 

“We just need to be thoughtful about it,” she says. 

And while Meredith condemns stories in any form that treat Black characters as “props” to facilitate the development of whites, she says some musicals, such as Hairspray and Memphis, give Black characters stories of their own. 

“It’s not just what happens,” Meredith says about Black characters in those stories, “it’s how they feel about what happens.”

To view MTW’s Celebrate Black Broadway Artists programming, visit Musical.org/celebrate. Black Broadway History classes continue on Fridays, Feb. 19 and Feb. 26 at 7pm. Black Broadway Choreography classes continue at noon on Saturdays, Feb. 20 and Feb. 27. All donations go to the artists

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