What I Think About When I Hear That Broadway is Racist


Via Medium.

What I Think About When I Hear That Broadway is Racist

By Heathcliff Saunders

The Blacker the Body, the Sweeter the Juice.

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That’s me. In Hairspray. photo credit: John Pai

I’m a musical theater writer. I look pretty unusual in the world of musical theater writers, in the sense that I am not a cisgender gay white man, but today, you might specifically notice that I look unusual in that world because of my Black body. You don’t see a lot of Black bodies in the world of musical theater writers. Frankly, you don’t see a lot of Black bodies anywhere in musical theater. There’s been a recent surge in musicals that use Black bodies on stage — which gives the illusion that there are a lot of Black bodies in musical theater — but that’s pretty much limited to just the stage.

I actually make my living primarily as an actor in musical theater (or perhaps I should say made my living; Coronavirus is stressful). I was in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway, and I seem to get cast in Jesus Christ Superstar a lot, most notably on NBC in the concert starring John Legend, and then as Jesus in the Chicago Lyric Opera production. Still, I have found that as an actor, my body is rarely considered Black enough to play Black characters, so I’m most commonly utilized in actively diverse and/or color-blind shows. I’m also a musician, so people love to give me a guitar onstage. An ethnically ambiguous body with a guitar — I’ve made an entire career of it. Very chic, very 2020.

So I guess I’m a musical theater writer and an actor.

What is my responsibility, in this moment?

Well, according to my social media feeds, apparently the theater world really wants Black people to tell their stories, and I’m a Black person, so I’m gonna tell my story. But there’s a lot you need to understand first.

Full disclosure, I hate the musical Hairspray. It’s unfortunate, because I think it’s technically a good show: musically, it’s boppy and varied and insightful, with well placed and well structured songs, generally good to inoffensive lyrics, and some thrilling arrangements that are as emotionally manipulative as they are effective. The plot arcs nicely and lands solidly, the characters are clearly drawn and leave ample room for talented actors to be funny and heartbreaking and fun. The plot is well-intentioned, and seems to have a good moral of inclusion and solidarity. Basically, everything’s coming up Hairspray.

I still hate it.

This past week, it was announced that the songwriters responsible for the score have closed up a casting loophole in the licensing rights that allowed for “non-diverse” productions of Hairspray. Some of my friends shared this news with me, giving a tepid “bravo,” or “it’s about time.” Or a pearl-clutching “how could anyone do this show with an all-white cast?”

I’ve known about the Hairspray loophole for years. I found out about it soon after I did the show myself. I might have even posted or tweeted about it, laughing along with my friends, incredulous that anyone could think doing a musical about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s with an entirely non-Black cast would ever be a good idea. But I’m not shocked that well-meaning people might give it a shot.

The thing is, Hairspray is part of a grand story about American racism: the story that racism can be overcome. The story that we can see beyond race, and if we can all see beyond race in the way that these characters do, then we can all imagine a better world. Not just imagine it — create itWrite it. This story feels very good, especially as a writer. But let’s remember the old writing adage, sage advice for the young writer: we tell them to “write what you know!” What’s funny is we seem to forget that this is the only thing that any writer ever does, and when we look at successful, canonized musicals that use Black bodies on stage, what the creators of American musical theater know about Blackness is put into stark relief.

Anti-Blackness is a tenet of American racism, but it is not the whole of American racism. As I talk about the use of a body and a body’s Blackness, it is important to me that we are able to acknowledge that some bodies are more Black than other bodies. People are not more or less Black than other people. Blackness, in regards to the self, is impossible to quantify in terms of personhood, but Blackness, in regards to the body can easily be pointed to, in skin color, face shape, body type, vocal quality — these are the trappings of Blackness, and they do not define the self, except when used onstage. In talking about musical theater, “anti-Blackness” is how I refer to the disenfranchisement of literal Black bodies.

Nothing that I have said or will say has anything to do with how technically good or bad these shows are, in the context of the execution and craft of musical theater. What I am saying is the specific ways that these musical theater creators use Black bodies on stage have implications that contribute to a general culture of anti-Blackness.

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. The most obvious examples of this sort of story are magical or fantastical in nature: The Lion Kingor The WizIn these contexts the Black bodies onstage are, essentially, incidental. There’s no story-driven reason the bodies have to be Black, but it is certainly easier to justify the tone or the imagery or the music heavily borrowing from a Black space by putting them on Black bodies. The creators of shows like this can be easily heralded as creating “diverse” and “progressive” work for this reason, because in the context of American musical theater, the simple act of putting a Black body onstage is radical.

Other incarnations of the “imagined” world story are often more insidious — musicals that use a Black body in an ensemble or as a side character, but wherein that Black body is playing a character that is not seen in their Blackness and does not see Blackness. These are often shows that are centered around white bodies that don’t have to be white bodies — Pilar in Legally Blonde, or Alana in Dear Evan Hansenor even Tom Collins or Joanne in Rentwe often only think of these characters as Black characters because the original performer has a Black body. When discussing these roles, we tend to do ourselves a disservice by being distracted by the nuances of those performers instead of the nuances of the characters themselves. Pilar might operate as the trope of “sassy black friend” in the script of Legally Blonde, and may even be noted, in casting announcements or breakdowns, as a non-white character, but this does not change the fact that the use of the Black body in that part is incidental.

This is true of Hamilton as well — the Black bodies in Hamilton are incidental. The characters with Black bodies are not seen in their Blackness and do not see Blackness. Hamilton also dangerously hand-waves away the notion that American racism is built upon the exploitation of Black bodies specifically. The book and score explicitly reference the work of well-known Black artists, and even go so far as to unambiguously refer to the enslavement of American Black people, but the Black bodies it uses onstage are buried in a sea of ethnic ambiguity, so deftly that we can begin to believe that we cannot see them at all. This imagined world is “post-racial.” If we cannot see their Blackness, then we have overcome racism. Much more intelligent writers than I have written entire essaysbooks, and even a play about the anti-Blackness of Hamilton for this very reason.

For the past decade, I have aggressively declared, in a fit of my own misguided progressivism, that I would only write stories about imagined worlds, because I, as a general rule, don’t particularly care for shows in which the Blackness of the characters is a necessary plot point. But this is letting myself off the hook, because what I’m really saying is that I, like you, have overcome racism. I have drunk the kool-aid. I, like the good characters of yore, have seen beyond race into a world in which race doesn’t matter. In that world, I no longer have to confront anti-Blackness as it manifests in me or my collaborators against Black bodies. In that world, all bodies are created equal, and the trappings of Blackness are ignored and unconfronted. A light skinned Black body might be considered with equal weight as a dark skinned Black body, even though the impact and implication of dark skin in the theater is significant. Because of the overt and implicitly racist machinations of an American economic juggernaut like Broadway, the Black bodies with the privilege of white adjacency, like mine, will be given opportunity and access that a “Blacker” body might not receive. And I cannot imagine my way out of that reality.

Speaking of reality, the second way to use a Black body onstage is more “realistic” — a story set in a “real” world. This is a story where the Black bodies play characters that are written to see the Blackness of themselves and the characters around them: Dreamgirlsor Once On This Islandor that musical I said I hate.

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. Most shows deal with this juxtaposition without grappling with differences between Black bodies at all, and rely entirely on a black/white binary. The effect of this binary is to say, essentially, that all Black bodies suffer when seen in their Blackness.

Dreamgirls is funny in the way it is complicit in this narrative, in the sense that it only deals with the Blackness of bodies indirectly. With the exception of a moment where the song, Cadillac Car, written (according to the story) and performed by Black bodies, is stolen by white bodies with no credit given, essentially no non-Black bodies are ever seen onstage. So beyond this single moment where we confirm for the audience that it does, in fact, suck to be Black, Dreamgirls may as well exist in an “imagined” world. The show basically says “you know what racism looks like, and we all know it’s bad.” An audience sees this, internalizes this, understands that the “real” world of the show is in the “real” past, and so, can tell themselves that we have already overcome.

Now, as with the stories of imagined worlds, the actors with Black bodies who have brought these roles to life have given these characters and stories depth and understanding that I have no desire to take away from them. The presence and performance of those Black bodies does no credit to the creators for their artistic progressivism, and we must be careful to not let the celebration of those performances by Black bodies be given to the creators as evidence of a progressive understanding of Blackness. The creators of Dreamgirls have simply written racism as they understand it. The Blackness of the body they’re using is incidental — it is only important that they are Black.

Once On This Island, though, is quite unique in this regard. Not only do characters see their Blackness and the Blackness of others — it is one of the only shows, if not the only show, within the musical theater canon that explicitly uses differently colored Black bodies. But, in the show, Blackness, the literal Blackness of bodies, is equated to poverty, ugliness, simplicity, and naivety, while light-skinned-ness is equated to wealth, beauty, education, and intelligence. Light-skinned Black bodies, in the context of Once On This Island, may as well be white. For all the ways the show might celebrate a particular culture with its music or dance or art, the show still reifies the already accepted terms of American racism, in which we subconsciously and consciously fetishize and subjugate actual Black bodies in favor of lighter ones, and the provided solution to that problem is to turn into a tree. A tree which symbolically and quite literally breaks down the walls between the whiteness and Blackness and allows the future generations to come together…and stop seeing Blackness entirely. An audience learns again what it already knows — racism is overcome by ignoring the Blackness of bodies.

Now, let’s talk about Hairspray.

Hairspray is solidly in the “real world” category of Black body use: Characters have Black bodies, and they see each other’s Black bodies. The creators very obviously are well-intentioned, as the story is pretty explicitly about the importance of integration and the beauty of love across borders. “Tomorrow is a brand new day, and it don’t know white from Black.” However, the effect of the use of Black bodies in Hairspray is a literal fetishization of Blackness, both the physical form of the bodies, and of the emotional, spiritual, and real life pain of a shared Black experience.

Hairspray does next to nothing to really explore or center the Black bodies whose stories it unceremoniously mines to tell it’s primary story, which is about the acceptance of a white body that’s a bit different. The entire concept of “Blackness” is distilled to “some people are just a little bit different.” And if we could only see beyond race

The character Motormouth Maybelle sings, over and over, “I know where I’ve been,” but never actually specifies anything about that experience, beyond relying on the truth a performer with Black body can bring in only the way a performer with a Black body can. When the character Seaweed sings about himself, he returns to a lyric over and over again about how excellent his dark skin is (“The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice”) but opens his big number with the line “I can’t see why people look at me and only see the color of my face” — You can’t see that? Seaweed, it’s because America was built on the back of a literal slave trade, commodifying and exploiting Black bodies like your own, and then subsequently spent the next three centuries working to keep those Bodies subjugated in ways both explicit and unspoken. You can’t see that? Oh wait, I just remembered — these are not Seaweed’s words, they are the words of the writers. The writer writes what he knows.

When I, a light-skinned Black person, played Seaweed, I remember wondering how I was supposed to say the line “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice” while standing in front of an ensemble of Black bodies darker than my own. I brought it up to my director, and he said to me, “Well, I think it’s probably fine, because you’re Black, right?” And I laughed, and I nodded. And in that moment it became clear to me that the Blackness of my body may have mattered to me, but it didn’t matter to the show. Because in Hairspray, the Black body is incidental.

It was just this week that the creators finally came out and said ‘Hey, maybe you should only do this show with performers with bodies that align with the characters as described.’ They thought, before, that the irony of “preventing participation based on race” was too great to explicitly admit how they were actually using Black bodies onstage, because to admit it would be to admit that they saw Blackness, and the story of racism in American musical theater is that it is racist to see Blackness. Because if you see Blackness, then you hate it.

So, in an “imagined world,” the creators of a musical put a Black body onstage and tell you not to see its Blackness. And in a “real world,” the creators of a musical put a Black body onstage and tell you not to see its Blackness. The story of race in American musical theater is we will overcome racism by not seeing BlacknessIn American musical theater, Black lives don’t matter.

Now, let me try to tell my story.

I’m a musical theater writer. This is a musical.

The characters in this musical are going to be the creators of the nine successful musicals I’ve referenced in this essay. Since I plan to put these characters on stage, I now have cause to be specific about the kinds of bodies these creators have. Because I am Black, I plan to use Black bodies in the story. I said I only want to write “imagined” worlds, but I need you to see my Blackness to justify my telling my story, so I’m going to place this story in a “real” world. The characters will see the Blackness of themselves and of the other characters. The real life creators of musical theater (who will become my characters) could be considered a wide assortment of people responsible for getting a musical up onstage, but for the purposes of my story, I’m going to use all the directors, composers, and bookwriters of those original productions. They are: Julie TaymorElton JohnTim RiceIrene MecchiRoger AllersGeoffrey HolderCharlie SmallsWilliam F. BrownJerry MitchellLaurence O’KeefeNell BenjaminHeather HachMichael GriefBenj Pasek, Justin PaulSteven LevensonJonathan Larson, Thomas KailLin-Manuel MirandaMichael BennettHenry KriegerTom EyenGraciela DanieleLynn AhrensStephen FlahertyJack O’BrienScott WittmanMarc ShaimanThomas Meehan, and Mark O’Donnell. Among these 30 characters, there are two Black bodies.

The thirty-first character in this musical will be “me.” In the story, Heath arrives at the grand meeting of musical theater creators, and he immediately notices that he looks pretty unusual, because of his Black body. He notes this for his audience, just in case we missed it — he can see why people look at him and only see the color of his face. We watch him for two hours as he struggles to be seen and heard in his Blackness — this makes sense to us, because we know a Black body struggles to be seen and heard in America. The two creators with Blacker bodies are frustrated with Heath, because he struggles to understand that they have suffered more, and this will make sense to us, because their bodies are Blacker than his. One of the other creators tells Heath the story of those Black bodies when they are unable: when those Black bodies joined the grand meeting of musical theater creators, there were no Black bodies. Heath will be grateful for progress, and for the sacrifices of Black bodies before his. Now he knows where they’ve been.

This show will be “good”: musically, it will be boppy and varied and insightful, with well placed and well crafted songs, whip smart lyrics, and thrilling orchestrations. The plot will arc nicely and land solidly, the characters will be clearly drawn and leave ample room for talented actors to be funny and heartbreaking and fun. The plot is well-intentioned.

At the end of the show, we will all applaud Heath and the creators when they all gather together and recognize the truth, which is that this grand meeting of musical theater creators is both deliberately and inadvertently anti-Black. The stated moral — we’ll even write it into the finale — will be “Representation matters.” Now there are three Black bodies in the grand meeting of musical theater creators, and we have overcome.

What have I told you about Blackness?

What do you really know about my life?

Theatrical storytelling is all about using bodies onstage. Representation among those bodies is a noble effort, an effort that I believe has already begun, and even before this particular moment of American upheaval. Musicals are using Black bodies in their storytelling more often every day, which bodes well for representation, and I applaud and support these efforts. Theatrical producers and directors and writers and composers are all being called to hire more Black bodies, cast more Black bodies, listen to more Black bodies, use more Black bodies. See more Black bodies.

But Black bodies are not Black lives, and Black lives are not Black bodies. More bodies alone will not change the story of Blackness we’ve been telling. To think that it will is to believe the story of Blackness we’ve been telling. So maybe, just maybe, we should stop writing what we know, and start writing what we don’t.

Via Medium.