Sweet songs and difficult conversation: HGO's Show Boat raises powerful racial themes
Sometimes you just can't help loving something.
Certainly, that's true of Jerome Kern's Show Boat, which audiences have loved since its debut in 1927. With its book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, two striking film adaptations, and iconic songs like "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," what's not to love?
This question was in the air at a subscriber symposium to prepare audiences for the Houston Grand Opera's upcoming production of Show Boat. HGO dramaturg Mena Mark Hanna began the symposium, which featured my Rice University colleagues Nicole Waligora-Davis and Alexander Byrd, professors respectively of literature and history, with a simple assertion: "We're going to talk a lot about the racist themes in Show Boat."
What's there to talk about? Plenty.
According to Hanna, HGO's Show Boat may be "a version as close to the 1927 original as possible" but it avoids the "opening chorus with its racially charged terms." He said, "We are making it easier to enjoy."
Even the very lyrics of this iconic musical have often been revised to avoid controversy. According to Hanna, HGO's Show Boat may be "a version as close to the 1927 original as possible" but it avoids the "opening chorus with its racially charged terms." He said, "We are making it easier to enjoy."
Based on Edna Ferber's bestseller, the musical traces the fortunes of a Mississippi showboat, the Cotton Blossom and the dramas of its crew, from captain to singers to stagehands to dock workers. The plot features aspiring performers, no-good lovers, and a biracial star passing as white to avoid persecution under anti-miscegenation laws that forbid marriages across racial boundaries.
Here's Lena Horne singing the iconic "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" that Julie first sings in Showboat:
You might have noticed that the film credited is not, in fact, either the 1936 or 1951 Show Boat but rather the 1946 Till the Clouds Roll By, a film based on the life of Jerome Kern that featured a portion of Show Boat. In a particularly vicious twist of irony, Horne lost out on the role of Julie to Ava Gardner because Hollywood production codes forbid interracial relations on screen.
Parts of the plot of Show Boat might seem even more twisted. Julie's husband Steve fends off their arrest by the local sheriff by swallowing Julie's blood so he can claim that he too has black blood. No longer are they a mixed-race marriage, but now that Julie's secret is out, she and Steve are forced to leave. It seems black performers just wouldn't be palatable to the Cotton Blossom's customers.
The checkered performance history of Show Boat was a theme of HGO's subscriber symposium. But Hanna was clear about the HGO's intentions. He said, "You cannot educate people about bigotry by ignoring bigotry."
If I learned anything from the HGO subscriber symposium, it's the importance of having difficult conversations and remembering unsavory histories.
Walligora-Davis discussed the particularly American history of anti-miscegenation laws evoked by "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and the panic that incited by the idea of cross-race marriages, reminding the audience that even the celebrated Abraham Lincoln was "pro-emancipation but anti-miscegenation." She described twentieth-century African-American literature as attempting to "produce change at the level of culture. These stereotypes had to be changed."
Byrd discussed Showboat's other iconic song, "Ol' Man River." Focusing on Paul Robeson's rendition of the song in the 1936 film, Byrd said the politically active Robeson was performing with an awareness of those "who know what it is to work yourself to death."
Byrd argued that there were, in the history of versions of Show Boat "high and low points for dealing with the history of African Americans." The 1936 film features a montage of scenes from the hard lives of African-Americans, laboring or imprisoned, while the 1951 offers a nostalgic view of the south, cleansed of violent racial histories.
What followed in Byrd's presentation was anything but sanitized and was accompanied by a caveat that those who might be disturbed by violent imagery might wish to leave the room. Byrd showed slides of black men lynched, hanged, burned, or otherwise brutalized, reminding the audience that "for decades lynchings were weekly events" and often accompanied by commemorative postcards.
It'll be no surprise that there was much discomfort in the room, although there were few defections. Some subscribers clearly found the presentations powerful, one in particular remarking on Jerome Kern's sympathy, as a Jew, for all forms of racial intolerance.
Others were less patient, one interrupting the presentation to exclaim, "Tell us about Jerome Kern. It's a ground-breaking musical. We're talking about films from the 1930s." After the session was over, one subscriber complained that she didn't learn enough about the upcoming HGO production from the session.
In this perhaps I, too, am guilty in this. I could have spent more time writing about the celebrated Sasha Cooke, making her HGO debut as Magonlia Hawkes and playing against Joseph Kaiser making his HGO debut as the no-good Gaylord Ravenal who sweeps Magnolia off her feet in spite of herself. Melody Moore too makes an HGO debut as Julie, as does Morris Robinson as Joe. Marietta Simpson, a former HGO studio artist and no stranger to Houston since then, makes a triumphant return as Queenie.
But if I learned anything from the HGO subscriber symposium, it's the importance of having difficult conversations and remembering unsavory histories. Musicologist Todd Decker, in a recent book Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical, emphasizes the pivotal role of David Gockley's 1982 HGO revival, which was the "third HGO show in seven years that required a black chorus and principals" including notable revivals of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and African-American ragtime composer Scott Joplin's 1910 Treemonisha. Although the symposium didn't discuss the HGO's earlier production of Show Boat, it was ambitious and invigorating.
Of course the question remains: How will the production tackle the hard questions hovering behind the sweet songs?