Dec 28, 2007

Miracle musical

"Showboat" opened 80 years ago.
On opening night in 1927, the curtain went up on a dockside scene with black stevedores loading cotton bales onto a steamboat. They sang, “Niggers all work on de Mississippi,/ Niggers all work while de white folks play.”

The words were shocking, even in 1927, but they honestly portrayed the racial situation of 1880s Mississippi. Indeed, dealing with race at all in a Broadway production was shocking. It was, in fact, unprecedented to have black actors playing real characters, not racial stereotypes, in a musical, and performing side by side with white actors. But as the civil rights movement gathered force in the ensuing years, directors and producers felt obliged to tone down the original. “Niggers all work,” became “Darkies all work,” then “Colored folks work,” and then “Here we all work.”

In recent years Show Boat has even been accused of being racist itself, instead of the giant leap forward in racial understanding and honesty that it was. These accusations have come mostly from race-baiting black politicians and from race- and gender-obsessed scholars in humanities departments in colleges and universities. The argument, such as it is, is basically that Show Boat should have been a polemic on racism instead of a story of people living their lives in a world often pervaded by it. But that is to argue that Kern and Hammerstein should have written a totally different play—and, it should be noted, one that would have closed on opening night.

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