Is “Oklahoma!” racist?

Feb 17, 2012, 1:30 PM | Updated: 2:21 pm

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

Tom Tangney

Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Belfast’ is a crowd-pleaser that doesn’t quite hit the mark

"Belfast" has plenty to recommend itself but it's not nearly the moving testament to fraught times that Kenneth Branagh thinks it is or wants it to be.
8 months ago
Eternals, Marvel...
Tom Tangney

‘Eternals’ has to do a lot of heavy lifting for a single film

Imagine the daunting task Marvel sets for itself in "Eternals." It has to introduce 10 new superheroes, not to mention an entirely new cosmology.
8 months ago
French Dispatch...
Tom Tangney

‘The French Dispatch’ is unmistakably Andersonian

Wes Anderson is an acquired taste. But luckily, after 10 full-length movies, most critics and many movie-goers have acquired it.
8 months ago
Tom Tangney

All set-up and no payoff: ‘Dune’ is world’s longest and most expensive trailer

It's hard to find the right metaphor for the new "Dune" movie. Whatever comparison you choose, it must reflect a sense of incompletion.
8 months ago
Last Duel...
Tom Tangney

Poor Marguerite’s story saves ‘The Last Duel’

Tom Tangney says, ultimately, The Last Duel is a proto-feminist take on the Middle Ages with Marguerite's take that brings the film into focus.
8 months ago
James Bond...
Tom Tangney

Daniel Craig’s final James Bond movie comes full-circle

The 25th installment in the James Bond movie franchise may be titled "No Time to Die," but "Too Much Time to Die" may be more fitting.
9 months ago

Sponsored Articles

Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]

Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, initiative provides […]

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]

COVID Vaccine is a Game-Changer for Keeping our Kids Healthy

Snohomish Health District SPONSORED — Cheers to the parents and guardians who keep their kids safe and healthy. The dad who cooks a meal with something green in it, even though he’s tired and drive-thru burgers were tempting. The mom who calms down the little one who loudly and resolutely does NOT want to brush […]