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David Finkle

David Finkle

Posted: November 11, 2009 11:12 AM

Broadway Looks at Racism in the Obama Era

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There's been much mention in the press during the last however many months that in some pockets of the country, resistance to Barack Obama and his evolving policies is due to lingering -- not to say rampant -- racist attitudes. What one of those pockets is definitely not, I can tell you, is Broadway. Along that fabled strip, racism is noticeably out of favor.

Of the 35 productions running or opening shortly -- including the Jude Law-starring Hamlet revival and Patrick Marber's After Miss Julie, where racism really wouldn't be a factor -- at least 10 offerings have a rainbow-coalition hue. Make that 11, if you consider Shrek -- wherein an Ogre wins a Princess's hand -- as an anti-racist metaphor.

No one can prove that the favorable Great-White-Way climate is linked to Obama's ascendancy to the land's highest post. But it sure looks as if a mood is abroad that accounts for both new works and revivals in which various peoples either live together harmoniously as the curtain rises or learn to by fade-out.

Here's the evidence:

1. Tracy Letts's play Superior Donuts -- the follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony-winning August: Osage Country -- is a report on what happens when a white store owner becomes mentor to an ambitious and adrift young black man.

2. In the Finian's Rainbow revival, the black and white sharecroppers of Rainbow Valley, Missitucky are a happy group, troubled only by a bigoted senator, who changes his sour tune when he turns black as the result of a young woman's wish. The musical was written in 1947 and has since been written off as hopelessly dated (not the stunning E. Y. Harburg-Burton Lane score, of course). Yet, here it is, welcomed like an old friend at the end of Obama's first year in office.

3. The new musical Memphis is the love story between a white deejay and a black blues singer. Their affair only progresses after they overcome some -- but not all -- prejudice in their music-oriented hometown.

4. Hair, revived after its bow 40 years ago, has always been dubbed "The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" and follows the escapades of a mixed group in which black girls sing about loving white boys and white girls sing about loving black boys. When the show was brought back to B'way in 1977, it belly-flopped, but in the Obama era it's flourishing.

5. At the end of the musical Ragtime -- as at the denouement of the E. L. Doctorow novel from which it's adapted -- a white Anglo-Saxon mother and a Jewish father are married and raising her son, his daughter and a black boy, whose parents have been killed in racist incidents. As they walk into the sunset, it looks as if they could be heading for Rainbow Valley or prepping the kids to join a love-rock tribe.

6. Avenue Q, about a down-at-heels urban neighborhood where different-colored residents live comfortably side by side, closed not long ago, but it's been brought back to off-Broadway because, it would appear, of its pertinent 2009-10 message. (Okay, it's no longer Broadway and is back off-Broadway, where it started, but it counts, nevertheless.)

7. David Mamet has been quiet about the ins-and-out of his new play, nakedly called Race, but enough details have been leaked to indicate it tackles head-on the issue its title implies. Mamet mentions the president when he discusses his intentions and has stated that the drama "is intended to be an addition to that dialogue." Whether it ends positively remains to be seen -- and soon.

8. Never to be overlooked is South Pacific, successfully revived almost two years ago for only the second time since its 1949 intro. For it, Oscar Hammerstein, who consistently championed human rights, wrote the lyrics to "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," arguably the first song in a musical to excoriate intolerance. During the action, Little Rock native Nellie Forbush falls in love with Frenchman Emile de Becque, who has two Polynesian children by his late first wife. Nellie overcomes what she's been taught.

9. In the Heights, which also opened before Obama took the presidential oath, takes place in a New York city enclave where the neighborhood is constantly changing and the problems besetting the inhabitants have ceased to be racial. More important difficulties preoccupy them.

10. The hatred between the West Side Story white and Latino gangs endures right up to the curtain, when Maria's love for the slain Tony shames the surviving members of both groups into seeing the irrevocable destruction they've caused. This solemn tuner first charged across a stage in 1957 and still apparently feels relevant to times that haven't changed to the extent Obama has promoted change.

I ask again. Is this plethora of race-related properties coincidence, or has Obama-mania patently and potently affected the Broadway zeitgeist? You tell me.