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Thursday, February 16, 2012

5th Avenue Theater Responds to Controversy Over Musical "Oklahoma!"

Eric Ankrim as Curly McLain in Rodgers and  
Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Photo credit Curt
When Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre produced their new version of the Rodger and Hammerstein musical "Oklahoma!" they probably didn't expect to see a good old Oklahoma twister brewing on the horizon. In an official press release, Artistic Director David Armstrong is quoted as saying they wanted to "honor the great tradition while keeping the show fresh and exciting." But while innovation is important in art, it seems the particular types of innovations used have some audiences members calling out "Yippee-i-ay!" while others mount up to ride with a posse. Many of my fellow citizens of Tacoma have seen, or plan to see, the show, and have shared their opinions with me after reading my blog post. The musical runs from Feb. 3 - March 4.

Note: If you haven't already read my previous post (A Review of "Oklahoma!" at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre -- Oh, Not Such a "Beautiful Mornin'" ) please do. It has received plenty of attention and a variety of comments.

On Wednesday I received an e-mail and new press release from the 5th Avenue's Public Relations Manager Bridget Summers to let me know that because of the strong responses to the way race was handled in the production of "Oklahoma!" the theater plans to host four panel discussions and a town meeting to provide a forum for the public. The press release included the following:

"The choice to cast African American actor Kyle Scatliffe as the farm hand Jud Fry has been earning strong reactions.  While Scatliffe has been applauded for his nuanced portrayal of the character, there are some audiences who are concerned that having the only African American performer among the principals play the villain reinforces negative stereotypes about African American men." 

So, dear readers, you are officially invited to attend and participate.

Here are the dates and times, from the most recent press release:

Panel discussions will take place between the matinee performance and evening performance on February 18 and 25 at 5:00 PM and February 19 and 26 at 4:30 PM, and will feature Spectrum Dance Theater Artistic Director and Oklahoma! Choreographer Donald Byrd and The 5th Avenue’s David Armstrong.  A Town Hall Meeting featuring the executive team at The 5th Avenue Theatre and members of the creative team for Oklahoma! will take place on Monday, March 5, at 7:00 PM. 

WHERE:   The 5th Avenue Theatre (1308 5th Avenue, Seattle)
INFO:  For more information, please visit   

I close with a statement from Artistic Director David Armstrong:

“While we never intended to evoke such strong responses, I am in many ways heartened that this production has people talking about these important issues. The idea that musicals could, and should, tackle big themes and significant subjects largely began with Oklahoma! and I am not unhappy to see that legacy continue.
“We did believe that this casting would amplify the inherent drama in the story.  I’ve seen dozens of productions of Oklahoma!, but never before have I felt such empathy for Jud, and never before have I felt so sad when he dies.

“I never would have imaged that in 2012 a production of this almost 70-year-old musical could cause such a stir. I am a firm believer that great theater inspires dialogue, and I look forward to engaging our audiences on this difficult subject and hearing their reactions to this unorthodox casting choice.”


Anonymous said...

As a theatre artist, I am all for creating dialogue and people leaving the theatre talking. But it seems like the artistic team is using that general desire as a post-conceptual justification for their controversial choice. That is, people are talking about the casting decision and reacting with offense; and it appears that Mr. Armstrong is trying to make it seem as if that's the sort of conversation he wanted to open up with the casting decision. If that's the case (to provide an certain unnecessary shock value for its own sake, rather than part of a more coherent production concept), he might be missing the ball a bit.

Paula said...

You know, I had no interest in seeing this production for the nth time, but now I am quite tempted! Seldom has one of the old tried and true favorites garnered so much attention.

thepanthespian said...

@Anonymous While I agree with you, my overall response to your evaluation is "so what". Even if Mr. Armstrong is opening the discussion as an afterthought, he is opening the discussion. He has owned that, whether or not it was intended, this issue has been raised and is important. I salute the 5th for being willing to tackle the repercussions of their choices, whatever their original motives were.

Elizabeth R said...

I have been reading the reviews and speaking with peeps who have seen it to get a wider perspective. I have trouble seeing how this is "blind-casting." If one is to cast multi-racial--which we SHOULD do!! Why choose only one lead as a person of color? If only one lead is to be an actor of color--then why would that one be a character who 1. is the villan 2. is told to hang himself by a white man fingering a rope 3. is a character who (in this production) brutally rapes a white girl 4. and--after his death -- an almost mock-trial relieves the white man of any burden or responsibility for his death. Yes. I know Jud rushes Curly and Curly defends himself. That is in the play. However, once the almost mock-trial has race added to it... it is no longer hero vs villain-- but becomes something ever so much more complicated. And that was not, I believe, intended by the original creative team: Oscar & Hammerstein.
Stimulating a conversation that explores the Human Condition--both past and PRESENT-- is what art and theatre are all about- Dammit! The question of intentionality: did the 5th's creative team make the choice to stimulate controversy-- to stimulate a conversation-- or did they somehow not see that the choice could be found offensive or in poor taste by many? Whatever the intention, I am hopeful that the outcome will continue to be a conversation-- and not devolve into mud-slinging in either direction. I believe strongly, those of us who create art do have to take responsibility not only for our product but also for our choices and for the intentions behind the choices. The 5th is having open forums to encourage the conversation. That is good.