Do Black Lives Matter on Broadway?
June 19, 2020 3:38 PM   Subscribe

What I Think About When I Hear That Broadway is Racist Writer and actor Heathcliff Saunders (Twitter) writes about his Black body in musical theater.
posted by muddgirl (17 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
That was really thoughtful and thought-provoking.

It feels like it should be obvious that Black bodies are not Black lives, but it's worth hearing, especially in the clear context he provides here.

It's good to hear his specific stories, and his understanding. I hope more audiences seek out more works by Black writers. I want to hear more of these stories.

Thank you for sharing this with us, muddgirl.
posted by kristi at 5:01 PM on June 19 [3 favorites]

I'm going to think about this for a long time:
A story that uses a Black body onstage is either a story about an “imagined” world, or a story about a “real” one. The simpler use of a Black body onstage is in an “imagined” world. This is to say, a musical in which the Black bodies play characters who, as written, do not see the Blackness of themselves or of other characters in the show. This is an “imagined” world because real life human beings always see the Blackness of themselves and of other people. . . . A story set in a “real” world is a story where the Black bodies play characters that are written to see the Blackness of themselves and the characters around them: Dreamgirls, or Once On This Island, or that musical I said I hate [Hairspray].

The problem with these stories, in a word, is that they all lean into the creators’ and the audiences’ intrinsically anti-Black value systems — a body that is more Black necessarily suffers more. This is the rule of a “real” world.

Thank you for the post.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 5:35 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]

please refrain from going into a conversation about racism in elite artistic spheres and making it all about class. broadway has cultural resonance, where the impacts of casting decisions and plays being performed percolate all the way down to fanfiction being written or hand-drawn animatics of musical songs on YouTube. talking about ticket prices is a distraction here.
posted by devrim at 6:31 PM on June 19 [16 favorites]

[A couple deleted. devrim put it extremely well. Please focus this thread on discussing the points in the linked article; if you would like to have a conversation about Broadway and class, that should happen in its own thread.]
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 6:49 PM on June 19 [3 favorites]

My mother, who loves Broadway musicals, has complained about diverse casting in classic musicals. Integrating "Bye Bye Birdie" (one of her examples), gives audiences a false impression of how segregated life really was during that period.

Now, I'm a Shakespeare buff, and he didn't write many unambiguously Black characters. I've grown accustomed to colorblind (and gender-blind) casting, and no longer bat an eye at siblings or parents of different races. However, I can't deny that changing characters' races can change the meaning of the story.
The last time I saw Othello, Emilia was played by a Black actress. Making her a woman of color changed the story to one more about jealousy than racism.

There's been a lot of discussion recently on ways we've been lied to about our own history. Do portrayals of white teens and black teens peacefully coexisting in the 1950s (as in "Birdie") diminish the obstacles that civil rights leaders have been working so hard to overcome?
posted by cheshyre at 7:24 PM on June 19 [2 favorites]

Oh my god, this was an incredible piece. I don't know much about Broadway, so don't have a frame of reference there, but I'm thinking about it in terms of genre fiction, and how there's this ongoing conversation--or at least an ongoing talking past one another--about white writers representing race, and so much of the well-intentioned advice sounds exactly like what he's complaining about. White writers are advised by other white writers to insert Black bodies into one's stories for representation's sake, and since the books require happy endings and can't be big downers, the outcome is an elision of how those bodies are seen and treated in any real way. There's this desire to skip past the work, to get directly to Post-Racial Paradise. Saunders' point that this safe insertion of Black bodies actually strips away Black lives is compelling, and it's one there is no easy answer for, and it's worth stewing in its discomfort for a long, long time.
posted by mittens at 7:41 PM on June 19 [2 favorites]

This was great at so many levels. It's such a pleasure to read a master discussing their craft, and in this case all the additional questions of race, blackness, identity, story telling. Thanks for posting it.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 8:25 PM on June 19

Thank you very much for sharing this.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 11:14 PM on June 19

that was excellent, thank you

Do portrayals of white teens and black teens peacefully coexisting in the 1950s (as in "Birdie") diminish the obstacles that civil rights leaders have been working so hard to overcome

no - or at least, not until such portrayals become so much the norm that it materially affects people's awareness of the historical reality, which i really don't think is likely

same for othello - the shifts in focus across productions (via casting, staging, performance, even delivery of individual lines) all make it a richer work, and i don't think there's a danger of anyone forgetting that the play as a play (rather than a specific performance) has racism as a fundamental theme
posted by inire at 3:43 AM on June 20 [1 favorite]

This was an amazing article but I want to make sure I'm getting the gist of the ending. He is using "his story" at the end to show how narratives about Black people and Blackness fall easily (/deliberately) into narratives about A Ratio (aka representation) or Black suffering, failing to say anything interesting about the characters as people or provide any insights into how racism/white supremacy works systemically and oppresses some for the benefit of others. Am I reading it right?

I think it tripped me up because when someone says "now let me tell you my story," I don't expect it to be another example of what not to do...
posted by ropeladder at 5:49 AM on June 20 [1 favorite]

A few months ago, my wife and I had the privilege of seeing Dave Malloy (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet) and Rachel Chavkin's (Hadestown, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet) musical adaptation of Moby Dick at the Harvard ART. And, hey, yeah the concept of a Moby Dick musical may sound weird, but so is a musical about War & Peace. Yet the thing that made it captivating was that it was more than a straight adaptation, but a meta-discussion of the novel and the world that produced it. It comes sideways at Saunders' dichotomy of imagined worlds and real ones, because it reimagines the Moby Dick narrative where all of the white male ship officers are flipped into women of color, but also re-centers more of the story on the harpooneers (Queequeg, Tashtego, Dagoo, Fehdallah) to ask why their stories have been erased and flattened.

It's still a frame originating in white culture, but I appreciate the fact that it tries hard to use the biases and Melville's implicit racism to ask pertinent questions about the role white supremacy in our current society. I'd love to see it follow the long line of ART productions that are eventually picked up for Broadway, and continue in the trend also set by Hadestown for adding a diverse lens on white cultural touchstones.
posted by bl1nk at 8:03 AM on June 20 [2 favorites]

Thanks for sharing this!

I think it tripped me up because when someone says "now let me tell you my story," I don't expect it to be another example of what not to do...

Saunders addresses this on his Twitter.
posted by airmail at 11:13 AM on June 20

ropeladder, I could be off base but I interpreted it as saying a couple of things: 1) if we take his story as an unequivocal story of triumph it still sidelines people with darker skin, and 2) audiences are willing to accept literally 3 POC voices in an overwhelmingly white conversation as a triumph over racism. That's what happens in Hairspray, too: white people, continuing to hold all the power, deign to allow one black person on the Corny Collins show--happy ending, racism is over, good guys win! I definitely think he played with our expectations as readers that the story with him as the protagonist would be the right or best story to tell. A really great piece and lots of food for thought.
posted by capricorn at 12:00 PM on June 20

I also find it really instructive to compare the stage musical Hairspray to the John Waters film--the film still has issues and I wouldn't call it an antiracist work exactly, AND moreover its creator and assumed audience are white (is White Gaze a thing? I think surely it must be), but it definitely confronts some much more uncomfortable (for white people) issues than the musical. The musical is really sanitized and watered down.
posted by capricorn at 12:02 PM on June 20 [1 favorite]

Saunders said on Twitter that the first time this piece was published, the editor changed most of the instances of "Black bodies" to "Blackness" along with other illuminating changes.
posted by muddgirl at 12:19 PM on June 20 [3 favorites]

thank you muddgirl for posting both the original link as well as the follow-up thread showing editorial changes vs original. i'm struck by how well-crafted the article is, both in overall message as well as in specific and purposeful word choices
posted by devrim at 12:43 PM on June 20 [1 favorite]

African-American playwright Aurin Squire contemplates performative blackness for a white audience in The Return of the Native Son (paywalled, sorry).

Aurin's Blog here.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 10:36 AM on July 3 [1 favorite]

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