Sep 2, 2009

Race on Broadway

I don't just mean the new Mamet play with that title, coming in December. I've noticed something else about the upcoming Broadway season: A striking number of productions, culminating with Mamet's, deal with the specter of black-white racial tension. And all of them are written by white authors.


1. Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts, which follows a white donut-shop owner in a gentrifying black neighborhood in Chicago.

2. Ragtime, returning after only a dozen years off the Main Stem. As many have already noted of this Washington, D.C.-originated revival, this musical seems to resound even more strongly and bittersweetly in the age of Obama.

3. The musical Memphis, by Bon Jovi's David Bryan and Joe DiPietro (the Toxic Avenger team), which intertwines the town's landmark status as a civil rights hotbed and the cradle of early rock 'n' roll with an interracial love story.

4. Finian's Rainbow, whose main plot isn't about race per se but whose commercial prospects have always been a question mark in large part because of the weird subplot involving a white Southern Senator, a racist who is magically turned black—though the current production has cast two actors of each race to portray this transformation, in the past it was often done in blackface. And in any case, this subplot is part of the show's larger satire of backwards American attitudes.

5. And finally, Mamet's Race, which will be certain to put an exclamation point on this mini-trend.

Outliers and exceptions include Fela!, Bill T. Jones' show about the African musical icon, and the Dreamgirls revival, coming not to Broadway but to Harlem's Apollo Theatre. (And if the long-threatened White Noise, a musical about a white supremacist pop group, ever makes it to Broadway, this would only add to the count of shows about race from white authors*.)

This glut of shows-about-race comes amid a relatively good year for black theater artists overall, at least Off-Broadway: The show of the year has inarguably been Lynn Nottage's endlessly extending and Pulitzer-winning Manhattan Theatre Club hit Ruined. And such major upcoming productions as Lincoln Center's Brokeology and the Tarell Alvin McCraney Brother/Sister trilogy are nothing to sneeze at.

The larger backdrop is that a few months ago our first black president and his wife attended August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone on Broadway. More recently, though, the promise of a post-racial era wilted a bit, with the Skip Gates incident and with some of the more extreme criticisms of the president (the ridiculous Glenn Beck “racist” flap). Obviously race is a topic about which we’re still too easily worked up, and coincidentally—since none of these works, except perhaps Mamet’s, were written with the current political climate explicitly in mind—and quite improbably, the Great White Way is offering a through-the-looking-glass reflection of this odd, querulous racial moment.

*I originally wrote that White Noise has no black folks in it at all, which it didn't when I saw it a few years ago. A commenter has set me straight: It's been rewritten to include four black characters.


Anonymous said...

Your information regarding WHITE NOISE is incorrect. In the most recent production, which played in New Orleans in July 2009, there were four black people in the cast.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Thanks for the head's up! Now can you tell me when White Noise is coming to the Great White Way?