This will be a very intriguing topic; I can only hope the piece lives up to it.
I believe that I've mentioned previously that I am a member of a worldwide email group of aficionados of the comic operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. That should be no secret to regular readers of this column, of course, who are aware that I used to perform those works through most of my, er ... "remote" youth.
There has been a long-running thread on that list about the issue of casting people who are not necessarily racially expected in their roles, not just in the Savoy operettas but in entertainment in general. I wrote about this in regard to a production of The Mikado that was turned into an Italian setting after protests from "professional victims" in the local community.
I am not a fan of racially distracting casting. If a character is supposed to be black, particularly historically, then don't be using a white actor to play the character. The piece I did on that topic is one of the most widely-read on this site, and is cited here, primarily because I need to be consistent and not self-contradictory.
At any rate, one recent thread in a topic on the mail discussion list wasn't even about Gilbert and Sullivan, and not so much theatrical stage performances, as it was about the performance of a particular song from a particular musical, in a particular setting. The song was "Ol' Man River" from the Kern and Hammerstein musical "Show Boat", when done in a concert setting or other non-theatrical show by a singer (i.e., not as a part of "Show Boat").
Now, in context (i.e., in the musical), it is sung by a black character who works at the boat as a stevedore, and the song is meant to provide the dramatic contrast between the suffering of the people and the lack of concern on the part of the Mississippi River (that "just keeps rolling along"). In the context of the musical, it would be difficult for the character to be anything but black, so in that context it makes little sense to think of someone non-black singing the song, unless it is set in some kind of mixed-race, impoverished place.
But that wasn't the context of the discussion. Aside from the subtopic of purging the most offensive lyrics from any contemporary performance (which is a separate issue completely), the discussion focused on whether it would ever be acceptable for a white performer to sing the song (in a non-theatrical, concert setting).
Obviously, there are a number of members of the discussion group in the U.K., as well as in Australia and the USA. And one of them made the point, which is the topic of this piece, that it would be perfectly reasonable for a white performer in the U.K. to do the song, as long as it were done well, in that there was not really a cultural barrier to such a performance -- over there.
So I found myself thinking about that concept. In a sufficiently professional production of "Show Boat", I would not want to see a white actor in a black leading role. It makes no sense to do so, as you will have reintroduced disbelief and lost the audience. There is, after all, dialogue to deliver and no amount of good acting will overcome the loss of the audience.
Why, then, do I believe that a concert performance of the one song, in isolation, could be OK? Why is it the case that we would be open, at least in the U.K. if not in San Francisco, to a white singer presenting "Ol' Man River" in context?
Because it is a challenge, that's why. When you take that particular piece of music on as a white performer in concert, it is pretty darned hard to transport your audience to where they have a white singer in front of them, convincingly taking on a lyric designed for a black stevedore on a boat on the Mississippi. And I, if not people in some parts of the USA, am absolutely open to allowing someone to take on that challenge in a concert setting, even though I would not be open to seeing them do it as an actor in the show.
Assumedly the English are open to that as well, and it is to their credit, in my humble opinion, that they do so without some kind of politically-correct mind torture of the kind that the left in the USA wants to jam down our throat.
Either way, I will give a great performer the right to try to transport me, if only in the period of a single song. Have at it.
Copyright 2016 by Robert Sutton
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