Race Cards Played on Broadway: Turning Tricks Like Trumps!
It's All In The Shuffle...
Who doesn’t like a great Broadway show? What have you seen lately? The Phantom of the Opera? Les Miserables’? Seven Brides for Seven Brothers? The Lion King? You may find yourself humming the show tunes long after the play is over, but soon enough you will be home again in a more familiar place with the real life staring you right in the face! Sometimes a ticket to diversion is in order. So, on this cold rainy night, during a recent visit to New York City, the escape was to take in a show. The question was "What's the hottest deal on Broadway?"
The Deal Is On!
Well what’s hot and what’s not may be one in the same, depending on what's in the deal! There is what seems like an unusual but somehow frequent hand being dealt on Broadway. This hand is full of race cards, and they are indeed trumps, beating out much of the competition there. According to Playbill (www.playbill.com), there are several plays featuring highly controversial material related to race relations here in America. They are: (1) Memphis, which is said to defy the ugly racism in the 1950s South. Another is (2) Ragtime, a trilogy storyline which features immigrants coming to America seeking a better life but also includes African Americans who, of course, were brought against their will. (3) Superior Donuts is a play that depicts whites and blacks interacting as a working class of people but having tension among themselves with the American Dream at the heart of matters. In (4) Finian’s Rainbow, the setting is that of white and black sharecroppers living together in the fictional state of Missitucky, in which a senator learns lessons about tolerance, even though he is a bigot. (5) A Steady Rain plays out a story wherein these cops think they have been ousted from promotion because of affirmative action. (6) Race delves perhaps deepest into the subject of racism by demonstrating the tension between two partners in a law firm, black and white, who have a white client charged with a sex crime against an African-American woman.
If that is not enough, there are more well known titles, ones of which you may already know the plot, including: Hair, South Pacific, West Side Story, and Bye Bye Birdie, plus newcomer In the Heights.
Which Suit Will Be Followed?
In all of these, there was choice for us to make. Which show would we take in during our visit with my brother in New York? We chose Ragtime! It was running at Neil Simon Theater (www.neilsimontheater.com). This play has won four Tony Awards. In it, the struggles of a high-society family, immigrants, and a harlem musician become intertwined, as they all seek a better life in pursuit of the American Dream. This was an era of progress despite its painful process! The numbers for the play resounded a truly classic musical from start to finish! The singing was very good, in some instances over the top, as in the case of Coalhouse Walker Jr. played by Quentin Darrington and Mother played by Christiane Noll. If Ragtime music was king, then racism was queen in this play. The ace was industry and big business, including Henry Ford and JP Morgan. The jack was all other entertainment, which prized people like Houdini and the vaudeville acts. It seems that ragtime music could induce a somewhat happy-go-lucky mood in listeners, which was sure to ease the tension of the restless immigrants and their African-American counterparts.
The Hand Is Played!
These were the cards being held. When it was all said and done, it seemed to me that several messages were clear: An oppressed people may rebel. A hungry people will seek food and in some cases fortune too! A hateful people will not always hold sway. Even Booker T. Washington, featured in the script, wanted African-Americans to aspire to nonviolent means to their end of seeking more freedoms and eventual equality. Yet when this method was tried by the character, Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime, it resulted in his untimely and unwarranted death at the hands of those guilty of not allowing justice to prevail. There was quite the opposite effect in the kind-hearted Mother who insisted on caring for Coalhouse's son when he himself did not.
Even the Spectators Began to Sweat!
My brother’s comment at the curtain call was, “I have never been so entertained by something so racist in all my life?” There is a dilemma here you see. We were entertained by the music and the sheer talent of the players! Yet, it was racist, even using the N-word and the word Crac### at times, highly offensive! How could this be? Is it because we were in New York, and we think theatergoers in New York can sit maturely and take in whatever the stage presents, and we were among them? Or could it be that we sat through it because we already know that racism is as much a part of American History as the strongly woven fabric in a pair of our own blue jeans! So it rang true, and so we continued to watch. It was kind of like we did when Roots aired in the 70s. Make no mistake, it made many of us very uncomfortable if not outraged, but we accepted it for the awful heritage it presented. As the saying goes, it is what it is! On the one hand, Ragtime made us think about our own attitudes towards people of another race...good, bad, or indifferent! On the other hand, it made us remember to hope for better times among all peoples so that no one will suffer at the hands of their fellowman again.
The Game Gets Interesting!
For less than two hours, the Ragtime set took us back to the 20th century where we found a common uneasiness, despite the high energy entertainment factor. As awful as racism has been, somehow we have managed to swallow down the negative images like a bad-tasting medication, which you think will somehow be a cure. You just drink it! Sadly, that has not been the case! Racism pants on like a predator seeking its prey! We silently wish this was not the past, but there was triumph in how these various peoples managed to rise above the hate to achieve much of what they set out to do. It's just a Broadway play, but we were moved by all we saw and heard before exiting the theater back into that chilly damp night. As we scurried along and discussed the show, it was clear that Ragtime made us think about the relationships between the races again whether we wanted to or not.
Remembering It's Just a Game...
It was quite a show! I did reflect on the history that stretched over the scenes like a timeline, and I will remember the essence of pain and joy the characters brought to the stage with big acting talent and bigger voices. This is not meant to be a review. There are real critics for that!
The Game Is Over!
It's just a thought I suppose, but this time art delivered more of reality than I had bidden for it. That being said, I folded my ticket and walked away with just the memory!
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