There’s scant evidence that our current president is a racial essentialist—that the temperamentally moderate, biracial Barack Obama, as one especially odious cable pundit indelibly phrased it, harbors a “deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” On the other hand, the First Couple’s reported theatregoing has tended unmistakeably toward African-American artists and themes: In his days as the junior senator from Illinois, Obama and his wife were spotted at the Goodman Theatre production of Drowning Crow, Regina Taylor’s Gullah resetting of The Seagull, and at Skokie’s Northlight Theatre for its production of Permanent Collection—a play by a white author, Thomas Gibbons, with a strongly drawn black/white racial conflict at its center.
More famous, of course, was the Obamas’ appearance in late May at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre for Lincoln Center Theatre’s revival of August Wilson’s masterpiece Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. It was hard to decide what was more significant (and moving) about this epochal cultural convergence: that the country’s first black president and First Lady had this occasion to pay their respects to arguably the finest play by America’s greatest black playwright, or that our chief executive, after barely more than 100 days in office, was modeling serious theatregoing at all. That Joe Turner had a white director, Bartlett Sher—the first major Wilson revival to cross that color line—had definitely furrowed some brows. But in the purported post-racial glow of the dawning age of Obama, it seemed churlish to harp on that—indeed, Sher’s hiring could even be seen, in the right light, as an encouraging sign of more inclusive times.
What a difference a few months can make. Summer is often a slow political season, but the dog days of 2009 proved something of a partisan free-for-all, fueled in part by accusations and counter-accusations of race-baiting. There was Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s unfortunate tussle with the Cambridge police and the subsequent “beer summit” photo op on the White House lawn; there was the deeply absurd spectacle of white Senators lecturing Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor about racism. More ominously, a series of anti-tax “tea party” demonstrations coupled ostensibly legitimate conservative protests against government spending with a smorgasbord of extreme, not to say extremist, tropes straight out of the classic American-paranoid playbook: intimations of a sinister government/banking cabal, wild charges of communist conspiracy, and perhaps most troubling, the persistently voiced suspicion of Obama’s Otherness, his not-like-us-ness, epitomized but somehow not delegitimized by the loony birth-certificate hunters.
So okay, fine—maybe we’re not so post-racial, after all. That’s hardly front-page news. What’s surprising is that our nation’s still-unprocessed racial anxieties, in particular the complications of its foundational black/white divide, are finding expression in an unlikely place: on Broadway. The Obamas’ date night aside, New York’s commercial theatre district may be one of the last places you’d think to look for an up-to-the-minute snapshot of the American Zeitgeist, but there they are, in both straight plays and musicals: stories that rehearse our nation’s thorny, still-unfolding history in black and white.
In the synthetic new tuner Memphis, the romance between a white DJ and a black singer embodies the musical miscegenation that birthed rock-and-roll. In Tracy Letts’ deceptively gentle Chicago valentine Superior Donuts, racial animus is just the most obvious of several forbidding social faultlines the characters step over, gingerly. In a new revival of the young but already-classic musical of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, a proud black man, crushed in the gears of the Gilded Age, nevertheless points the way forward to a century of hope and change.
And, as if to crystallize this mini-trend, David Mamet unveils his bluntly titled Race this month, in which a racially mixed law firm squares off over whether to defend a rich white client alleged to have raped a black woman. “There is nothing. A white person. Can say to a black person. About Race,” admits the firm’s white lawyer—though he offers this merely as a peeved disclaimer before going on to do exactly that, speaking his mind frankly to his black colleagues on the strengths and failings of their people.
What’s telling about this new crop of shows is that Mamet’s lawyer is not alone: All come from white writers who presume to have something to say about race. The only African-American behind a Main Stem show this season, in fact, is choreographer/director Bill T. Jones, who also co-authored the book for Fela!. This ferocious musical tribute to the late Nigerian Afrobeat icon does not address race in America, of course; while Fela Kuti’s claim to the title of Pan-African “black president” may resonate prophetically with our time, it is hardly a reflection on it.
Look past Broadway, actually, and it’s a fertile time for African-American playwrights in New York. The play of the year was undoubtedly Lynn Nottage’s Congo-set Ruined, which ran from January through September at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage II, nabbing the Pulitzer along the way; talk of a Broadway transfer remained talk. The Public Theater is in the midst of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s Yoruba-inflected Brother/Sister Plays trilogy. Lincoln Center Theater recently hosted an acclaimed run of Nathan Louis Jackson’s bittersweet Broke-ology in its Off-Broadway space. And that’s just the most recent sampling of a year that’s included local premieres by Colman Domingo, Eisa Davis, Zakkiyah Alexander, Thomas Bradshaw, Charlayne Woodard and Tracey Scott Wilson.
With few exceptions, though, America’s black playwrights write about race— when they choose to write about race at all—as it’s lived within their own families and communities; precious few have chosen race relations as their main subject. Case in point: Though he surveyed the 20th century in a magisterial 10-play cycle, August Wilson never wrote a “civil rights” play, and indeed barely referred to the century’s slow, hard-fought lurch toward some kind of racial justice. That’s because he felt his mandate was not to define black American life in relation to the dominant white culture, let alone explicitly address the politics of that relationship, but to burrow down deep into the richly variegated soil of his own cultural experience, where, as he often said, he could find all he needed to sustain him. “I don’t believe there’s any idea, or any of the full variety of human experience, that cannot be contained by black life,” he once told me, in a characteristic formulation.
When white playwrights, on the other hand, write about race, they gravitate toward redemptive civil rights dramas, wary-friendship-between-the-colors buddy comedies, racial “problem” plays. Letts’ Superior Donuts has been rapped by some critics for being just such an old-fashioned liberal plea for racial harmony, though that sells short the play’s lived-in authenticity—and its authentic sense of heartbroken hopefulness, as a fading white hippie (beautifully etched by Michael McKean) is stirred from his self-pitying torpor by an idealistic but unblinkered young black man (the ebullient Jon Michael Hill) who comes to work in his decaying North Side donut shop. Indeed, Letts’ deft storytelling, invitingly familiar without being stale, feels somehow distinctly Chicagoan—he seems to have inherited some of the unflustered, no-bullshit street cred of such Windy City bards as Studs Terkel and Mike Royko, whose mix of gimlet-eyed skepticism and barstool volubility stood them in good stead on most subjects that passed their gaze or their earshot, including race.
Mamet springs from a similar Midwestern-macho tradition, though he has since added his own unique carapace of contrarian prickliness, and even announced himself to be something of a conservative, or more precisely a non-liberal. At face value, the impolitic provocations of Race recall those of Oleanna (now also on Broadway), which clearly found much of its perverse inspiration in the playwright’s outrage that any topic, politically correct or not, should be off limits to him. But Mamet is after bigger game than simple liberal nose-tweaking here; the two lead characters in Race, a white law partner (James Spader) and his black female associate (Kerry Washington), are genuinely searching, amid a minefield of misunderstanding and resentment, for some kind of mutually respectful modus vivendi—and in his own tendentious and schematic way, so is Mamet.
The Broadway musical has been literally harmonizing black and white since Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II created the medium’s first masterpiece, Show Boat, in 1927. And if rock-and-roll helped unseat show music from the nation’s pop throne, in large part through a complicated racial alchemy of its own, it has returned to conquer Broadway stages, and this time as a uniter, not a divider. Echoing Hairspray, in which an irresistible bubblegum beat bursts the boundaries between people of all colors and sizes, Joe DiPietro and David Bryan’s new Memphis idealizes rhythm-and-blues as the great American glue gun, melting and merging all but the most hardened bigots. But the healing properties of Memphis’s fictive “race music” (as rhythm-and-blues was once improbably labeled) might be more convincing if Bryan’s score sounded more like Ruth Brown or Big Joe Turner than like Elton John doing a Dreamgirls retread.
Ragtime makes a subtler and ultimately more convincing musical argument. The score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens is justly adored by many, but on the show’s second Broadway sighting it is Terrence McNally’s underrated book that emerges as the crucial frame for the score’s success. McNally’s biggest and trickiest accomplishment is fleshing out the central character, ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., who in Ragtime’s broadly imagined passion play becomes a tragic test case of the American dream—deferred, in his case, but set to explode in time. While in Doctorow’s novel Walker is a gnomic figure of few words, in the musical he has sufficient aspirational voice to sing hopefully of riding “The Wheels of a Dream,” and he is scarcely less expressive when his fortune turns and he goes rogue in the name of justice.
But the tragic register of Ragtime is not the exclusive property of the black characters. In the musical’s most pivotal and haunting scene, a WASP patriarch returns to his idyllic home in New Rochelle after a long trip—and is unpleasantly startled to find that a black family is in the process of reconstituting itself alongside his own, under his own roof, and that they’ve filled the air with a strange “New Music.” As Coalhouse plays a tickling rag on the piano, the characters, black and white, sing a melody that starts to soar, then circles back on itself, curiously, woozily; the music invites them but they resist, even as they’re joining in. “And I ask myself/Why can’t I sing it, too?”, goes the white father’s central lyric. Too late—he just did.
Like the final scene of Letts’s Superior Donuts, in which the aging hippie begins to transcribe the young man’s ambitious novel America Will Be, Ragtime’s tableau of uncertain but inevitable racial cohabitation renders perhaps the most honestly hopeful picture we can manage in a country still riven by its racial wounds and vulnerable both to skittish offense and cynical demagoguery. Black and white and every shade between, we are dance partners at the American bandstand, and the band plays on. If the president and his wife come back for seconds, they might try a bite of Donuts with a side of Ragtime.
Or they could always go Off-Broadway.
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