Is “Oklahoma!” racist?

Feb 17, 2012, 1:30 PM | Updated: 2:21 pm
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oklahoma
The 5th Avenue Theatre is so taken aback by the strong negative reactions, it’s announced no fewer than four panel discussions between the matinee and night performances the next two weekends AND scheduled a Town Hall meeting to address the controversy. (Image courtesy 5th Avenue Theatre)

It’s been a busy week for the PR department of Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. You wouldn’t think a 70-year-old musical with such classic songs as “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” “People Will Say We’re In Love,” and “Oklahoma” could get people so worked up. But that’s what a little color-blind casting will do … or perhaps not so blind.

Amazingly, the 5th Avenue show is the first major mixed-race production of “Oklahoma!” to ever cast an African-American in the key role of Jud Fry, the villain of the piece. Just about every review of the show has taken the production to task for succumbing to racial stereotyping. Calling it a provocative but unintentional caricature, the Seattle Times pointedly asks why the show chooses to depict Jud as “a homicidal black brute, prone to quivering rages, who forces himself on a virginal white girl.” And the Seattle PI says it’s impossible to avoid the racial implications of Jud’s violent pursuit of the white Laurey.

It’s not just the reviewers – a number of people reportedly walked out at intermission on Opening Night, and it’s sparked a lot of lively discussions online. Calling the show “absolutely terrible,” one commenter wrote, “The multi-racial casting just felt …racist .. and made many people I talked to afterwards uncomfortable.” Another recounted that “there was a noticeable gasp from the audience when Curly took the rope off the cabin wall where Judd lived and threw it over a hook attached to the ceiling and encouraged Judd to hang himself. So not only do you have a black man playing the villain, you have him aggressively trying to date a white woman (and kiss her) and then encouraging him to hang himself. The cast was great, the singing was incredible, the dancing was wonderful but it’s racist in its casting.”

The 5th Avenue Theatre is so taken aback by the strong negative reactions, it’s announced no fewer than four panel discussions between the matinee and night performances the next two weekends AND scheduled a Town Hall meeting to address the controversy.

I saw the show last night, and at intermission, there were a number of hushed discussions about the race angle: “That’s kinda racist, right?” “It is racist, but maybe that’s the point?”

It’s clear that the 5th never intended to evoke quite such a strong reaction, but it did mean to stir things up a bit. Donald Byrd, the show’s choreographer, says he was inspired by the history of African-Americans in Oklahoma. In 1907, there were over 50 all-black communities in the state, more than in all the other states combined. The theatre’s artistic director, David Armstrong, says the intent was to have the casting amplify the inherent drama in the story.

So, is it racist? Well, it’s complicated. I get what all the fuss is about. It IS disconcerting, at times. It does conjure up a lot of disturbing racial imagery from our nation’s past, especially in Laurey’s dream sequence which plays up her sexual and racial fears. But then that’s what dreams do; they’re not ever politically correct.

To me the casting adds a dimension of interest and complexity to the musical, a musical I may have seen a few too many times. I’ve always been disturbed by just how quickly the show dispatches with the law of the land to clear Curly of murder. Making Jud black just increases that discomfort.

Among many things, Jud Fry is an outsider, a social outcast – and who better to represent THAT in 1907 Oklahoma than an African-American? Ideally, in a post-racial world, none of this would matter. But clearly, we’re not there yet.

Tom Tangney

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