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Monday, February 13, 2012

A Review of "Oklahoma!" at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre — Oh, Not Such a "Beautiful Mornin'"

The atmosphere of anticipation at the press opening for“Oklahoma!” at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater rivaled that of any other evening I've spent in this beloved 86-year-old venue, where the musical runs from Feb. 3 to March 4. With a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the talents of Tony Award-nominated choreographer Donald Byrd and his dancers from the Spectrum Dance Theater, plus months of work and planning, this remake of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical would be full of fresh appeal. Right?

Maybe not, in spite of the applause. Afterward, outside the theater, a multi-racial group of four young friends, who had come to see the show together, stood around talking. The topic of their conversation was how this new version of “Oklahoma!” had confused and disturbed them. One of them, a beautiful young woman with light brown skin, said she had “a lot of questions” she would like to ask the show’s creators, about the casting. It clearly bothered her a great deal and for valid reasons.

Laurey (Alexandra Zorn) and Curly (Eric Ankrim) in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Chris Bennion
The setting is Oklahoma Territory in 1906, a year before statehood, a time when opposing interests (plowing and fencing versus open range) created bitter, sometimes fatal, tensions between farmers and cowboys.  In addition to a slice of Americana, it is a story about a love triangle in a small community, between the female protagonist Laurey (played by Alexandra Zorn), her would-be beau Curly (played by Eric Ankrim), and the hired hand, Jud, (played by Kyle Scatliffe).

Producing Director Bill Berry told me in an interview,“We’re bringing forward the tradition, but at the same time making sure an audience can relate today.” The word “relate” could mean relating to conflicts over land use, politics, the environment, and race relations, all current issues in this country just as they were in 1906, when Oklahoma Territory had become home to a large number of freed slaves. 

I applaud the creators of this version for observing this truth by choosing people of color for the cast, including Scatliffe. But they ignored the near certainty that in 1906 there would not have been a black man in the position of the fictional character Jud. This casting decision created controversy in the minds of many theatergoers I spoke with, because it seemed to play into negative stereotypes.
In this review in the Seattle Times, theater critic Misha Berson quotes Director Peter Rothstein as saying, “We also want it to be a more authentic kind of Americana, a more diverse Americana.”
People I spoke with did NOT think that an authentic portrayal of 1906 Americana would include a black man courting—and escorting to a box social—a young, white female in a small community in territorial Oklahoma. And even when Laurey expresses fear of Jud, her Aunt Eller (played by Anne Allgood) has no qualms. None of this is believable. If the casting choice reflected the idea that any cast member should be eligible to play any part, why not cast a black woman in the role of Laurey, or have a black Curly or a black Aunt Eller? And if he wanted it more diverse, why not include the Native Americans and Mexicans who also lived there in 1906?

The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Chris Bennion

To cast a black man in the role of Jud, offended some viewers who saw that choice as the perpetuation of the ugly and insulting stereotype of the angry black male, dangerous and menacing.  Jud has weapons and plans to kill. He clearly presents a threat to both Laurey and her virginity.  Jud is also the only character, out of all those farmers and cowboys, purported to have been seen drunk.
One of the most disturbing scenes takes place in the farm’s gloomy smokehouse, where Jud lives. Thinking Jud is taking Laurey to the box social, the jealous Curly shows up. He tries to intimidate Jud by playing with a rope, and he suggests how easily Jud could hang himself.  Several audience members near me shifted in their seats as if uncomfortable and whispered to each other.

I’m sure many people did love the show for its numerous positive attributes. It is worth the price of a ticket to experience the singing, dancing, and usual components of musicals at this landmark theater where I’ve enjoyed many great productions. The entire cast deserves a generous amount of praise. Conductor Ian Eisendrath should feel proud of the orchestra. You should go just to see the breathtaking sets designed by Matthew Smucker, the lighting by Tom Sturge, and the costumes by Lynda L. Salsbury. I hated to blink. I loved the warm yellow of fresh-churned butter or corn on the cob, the spring green of a new crop coming up in a field, the blue of a summer sky, and the brown of the earth. 
Will Parker (Matt Owen) and ensemble member Shadou Mintrone in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo: Chris Bennion

Rothstein  told Berson, for the Seattle Times, “I want people to leave the show exalted, but I don’t want to put a pretty bow on it . . . We’re asking, can America pursue the radical optimism of a nation that believes in freedom and equality?”  One might ask how the role of Jud reflects that statement.
I’m afraid this musical left many audiences members feeling the opposite of exalted, even though the package did have elements of prettiness.  There was nothing exalting about what happened at the end, after Laurey and Curly celebrate their wedding.  The two rival men get into a fight and Jud ends up stabbed with his own knife.  As the crowd stands around outside the farmhouse, Curly is informally charged with the crime but claims self-defense. No one wants to see him go to jail on his wedding night, and since the local judge is among the guests, a so-called “trial” is held right there.  Curly goes free.  And the death of the tragic character Jud does nothing to slow down the singing and dancing.
Observing this form of “justice,” I couldn’t help but think of Curly singing “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” in the opening scene, especially that part about “Everything’s goin’ my way.”

Copyright 2012 Candace J. Brown. May not be reprinted without permission.


Paula said...

Will we ever learn to see past color and revel in the storytelling, performance, and talent instead?

Anonymous said...

A friend posted your article on my Facebook wall in response to my status update about Oklahoma! as my reaction had been much like yours.

When a white guy is holding a rope and singing about how a black guy ought to hang himself, it is real hard to "see past color and revel in storytelling" as Paula suggests earlier in the comments section here.

And what was with the freak-dancing Chippendale's-style men's chorus line? Okay, so they had jeans under their chaps, but for all the pelvis thrusts written into those dance routines, they may as well have been wearing G-strings.

When it came time for intermission (just after the epic rape fantasy nightmare orgy thingy) I was so depressed I wanted to hang myself, but opted for a much-needed drink instead.

Definitely lots of WTF? and "what *were* they thinking?" moments in this production.

Thank you for not feather dusting around the elephant in the 5th Avenue lobby like some other reviewers have done on this one!

Jerome O'Neil said...

I loved Jud as a black man. It completely changed the dynamic of the entire play. It forces us to confront our own fears of that angry black man and demonstrates in absolutely clear terms *exactly* what would have happened at Curly's trial had Black Jud actually been killed by White Curly in 1906 Oklahoma.

There are very few times I would describe something that happens in a theater production as "brave," but that casting choice took serious stones.