Race and casting on the Great White Way

30 Jun

Could an all-white cast ever pull off an August Wilson play?

It’s a provocative question that might not be answered for a few decades.

New Yorker theater critic John Lahr raised the issue last December when he set the blogosphere atwitter suggesting that black casts should not attempt Tennessee Williams’ work.

“And no more infernal all-black productions of Tennessee Williams plays unless we can have their equal in folly: all-white productions of August Wilson,” Lahr posted as part of his Christmas wish list on the New Yorker‘s culture blog.

The late Wilson probably would have agreed with Lahr, but for the producers and the multiracial cast of A Streetcar Named Desire currently playing on Broadway, Lahr’s comments were fighting words.

Blair Underwood, who plays the brutish Stanley in the production, said, “Having a multicultural cast is analogous to marrying some people’s daughters, because they don’t want it. But that’s OK. That’s what progress looks like, and progress is never easy.”

Nicole Ari Parker, who pretty well nails her Broadway debut as Blanche DuBois, said of Lahr’s comments: “I kind of respect his courage in a way. To come out in 2011 or 12, and say such a dismissive, kind of uninformed racial comment, he’s putting it on the table. The only way we can really affect any kind of change is if this white critic really tells how he feels, and he did.”


Looking back on some old issues of my father’s paper, The New York Age, it seems like deja vu all over again.

In 1938, Wilella Waldorf of the New York Post, wrote that putting on the Mikado “with a cast of Negroes is just about as silly as it would be if the British Government were to revive Porgy and Bess in London’s West End with Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in the title roles.”

The editors of the Age called Waldorf’s column, an “asinine effusion.”

The irony is that the Mikado is set in Japan and the Japanese characters were played by white actors.

My father did not weigh in on Waldorf’s comments, but apparently enjoyed the 1938 Broadway production of Swing Mikadowith its “torso shaking of the beefy girls and the terpsichorean efforts of the more petite ones . . . ” In 1939 another all-black production The Hot Mikado opened on Broadway. Someone apparently liked the idea.

I think Ebenezer would have enjoyed this version of Streetcar. He often complained about the dearth of black casts on Broadway’s stages. He would have been pleased by the fact that several current Broadway hits have significant black casts  –  The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Memphis, Clybourne Park. In addition, James Earl Jones plays a former U.S. president in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, a play set in 1960. (Talk about colorblind casting!) Corbin Bleu is playing the role of Jesus in Godspell, and Raven Symoné has the lead in Sister Act.

My father also complained in the 30s and 40s that few black folks supported the theater, even in Harlem. I can’t speak for Harlem venues today, but black theater goers packed the house during last Saturday’s Streetcar matinée.

Streetcar is definitely worth the price of the ticket. I enjoyed seeing screen actors Underwood, Parker and Wood Harris bring their talents to the stage. The cast also included a number of Broadway veterans, including Daphne Rubin-Vega, Count Stovall and Carmen de Lavallade. Terrence Blanchard composed the music.

Knowing some of the history of Louisiana, it was not a stretch to imagine that the fair-skinned black DuBois sisters could descend from wealthy Louisiana landowners. I admit that I shivered reflexively every time Blanche referred to Stanley as an ape. I had to remind myself that Williams did not have a black man in mind when he wrote those words.

But back to my original question: Could/should an all-white cast ever perform an August Wilson play?

Wilson was an outspoken critic of colorblind casting. He advocated instead for more support of black playwrights.

“To mount an all-black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigation from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans. It is an assault on our present, our difficult but honorable history in America; is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large,” Wilson said.

I wonder, though, if there are not universal truths in Wilson’s examinations of the black experience that might someday resonate with others. Why not a Fences with a white family or an adaptation of Jitney featuring Puerto Rican or Dominican livery drivers?

Would Congress pass Father’s Day today?

16 Jun

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Note: I wrote this four years ago, including the line about Donald Trump! Happy Father’s Day.

Ebenezer didn’t seem to have much to say about Father’s Day. He didn’t acknowledge it in his columns. He never mentions his own father — whose name, Joseph Ray, I have had to glean from his marriage licenses. He doesn’t utter the name of his stepfather (He might not have liked that term; let’s say his mother’s husband) James Alkins, whose name I found by piecing together information from obituaries and death certificates. And since he was not a father at the time of his New York Age writings — and would not become one until he was 50 years old — he didn’t have any first-person insight to offer.

When I look at the history of Father’s Day, it makes more sense. Although Mother’s Day gained full recognition in the United States in 1914, Father’s Day would not gain equal status until 1972, when President Richard Nixon made it a permanent national holiday.

The effort to recognize fathers began in 1910 by Sonora Smart Dodd. Her father, William Jackson Smart, a Union Army veteran who reared his six children in Spokane, Wash. after his wife died in childbirth, deserved more props, Sonora thought. After hearing a Mother’s Day sermon in 1909, Sonora told her pastor that fathers should have a similar holiday. According to Wikipedia, she initially suggested her father’s birthday, June 5, but the pastors didn’t have enough time to prepare their sermons, and the celebration was deferred to the third Sunday of June.

So what happened between 1910 and 1972? Politics, according to Wikipedia.

A bill to accord national recognition of the holiday was introduced in Congress in 1913. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson went to Spokane to speak in a Father’s Day celebration and wanted to make it official, but Congress resisted, fearing that it would become commercialized. President Calvin Coolidge, [a Democrat] recommended in 1924 that the day be observed by the nation, but stopped short of issuing a national proclamation. Two earlier attempts to formally recognize the holiday had been defeated by Congress. In 1957, Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith [a Republican] wrote a proposal accusing Congress of ignoring fathers for 40 years while honoring mothers, thus “[singling] out just one of our two parents.” In 1966, [Democratic] President Lyndon B. Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation honoring fathers, designating the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day. Six years later, the day was made a permanent national holiday when [Republican] President Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1972.

It’s a good thing. Can you imagine the current Congress trying to pass a law recognizing Father’s Day? I can just imagine House Speaker John Boehner insisting that President Obama was trying to gain political advantage by spending time with Sasha and Malia. Donald Trump would probably insist that the president’s daughters are not really his.

Of course, I’m just being silly. I hope . . .

But when we despair over the attempts to pass campaign finance reform or a jobs bill or to hold on to the Affordable Care Act, keep in mind that it took Washington 60 years to fully recognize Father’s Day.

Have a happy one!

Harlem Jubilee

3 Jun

I love this emblem, “ER” of course stands for Elizabeth Regina,” but my father and I also share these initials.

My father would have loved all the pomp and circumstance associated with Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. After all, before he was a naturalized American, he was technically a Brit.
Apparently, he was not the only Harlemite with an affinity for the Crown. In 1937, a year after King George VI, Elizabeth’s father, ascended to the throne, folks on this side of the Pond went all out to reenact the Coronation Day celebration taking place in Great Britain.

In a column published in the New York Age on May 21, 1937, my father wrote:

“On Wednesday evening last (May 12) British patriotism reared its head in no uncertain terms here in Harlem when approximately four thousand persons, motley as motley is, descendants of British soil and their descendants, jammed the spacious Rockland Palace, where a Coronation Ball and Pageant was held under sponsorship of the Church of St. Ambrose, of which the Rev. E. Elliott Durant is rector.

Sir Gerald Campbell, British Counsel General, Lady Campbell and an official and family entourage added distinguished patronage.
National colors flew liberally from the gallery of the casino. The Union Jack was there, no doubt. . . .

Conservative and discriminating faces looked down from the gallery at the horde of dancers below. For this night they were Britain’s aristocracy, the dancers below the proletariat.

As one observed the revelry of the fashionably dressed ladies and their escorts, and the occasional greeting of friends, one was inclined to ask whether it was patriotism that prompted the turnout, or just another social affair. But when the rafters of the casino literally shook with legion voices raised in singing the British National Anthem, followed by Rule Britannia, one quickly concluded that when origin of birth is accentuated, the span between it and the land of one’s adoption is brief, very brief. The singing of the Star-Spangled Banner climaxed this song fest.

It was long after midnight when the replica of the Coronation took place. Preceded by a procession of ‘representatives’ of various colonies, Gordon Ward, by selection of the church, was bestowed the paraphernalia befitting a King. The Queen was represented by Mrs. Ulrica Baird, chorister. Mrs. Baird’s selection was by acquisition of 1,340 votes. Her closest runner-up was Miss Alma Simmons, ‘Queen of Scotland’ with 1,228 votes. Murcott Wiltshire, lay reader, essayed the role of Archbishop. Africa was not forgotten, as Acolyte Charles Cheesman, portraying Haile Selassie, received a rousing ovation from the spectators.”

Ebenezer goes on to quote Rev. Durant, a native of Barbados, who said:

“’It is joy unspeakable to me to address you on this most joyful occasion, which comes to us once in a generation. Once we were Britishers and now we are Americans. But because we were good Britishers, we are now better Americans.’”

Aunt Maude’s tragic death

27 May

Barbados Supreme Court Building

CHRIST CHURCH, BARBADOS, MAY 27, 2012 I spent a good part of Friday at the Barbados Supreme Court in Bridgetown to see what I could find out about my father’s sister, Maude, whom he wrote about in a column when she died in February 1934.

The item simply said: “News was received Friday evening last of the death of my sister Maude Victoria, aged 26 years on Friday, February 2, at her home in Barbados, BWI. May the sod rest lightly on her.”

When the administrator at the courthouse came back with the death certificate, he commented on what a tragic, horrible death Maude’s had been. “She died in childbirth, he said, “five days of labor.”

The death certificate lists the cause of death as “Puerperal septicemia; Cardiac failure and exhaustion from prolonged and difficult labour.” The “informant” was listed as “Noel Alkins, printer,” my father’s brother. It was a role he would take on again; two years later when their mother, Malvina, died.

There was a lot of waiting and appealing (Getting such documents is not usually a one-day process. Many of the court staff worked right through their lunch hours to accommodate the lines of those seeking records.) I did not find out whether the child (or children) Maude was birthing lived or died.

Malvina did apparently have a granddaughter, Carmen, who I had assumed was Noel’s child, but perhaps not.

My father’s column item about Maude’s death seemed much more detached than what he wrote when his mother died. He did refer to her as “my” sister rather than referring to himself in his customary third-person. Of course, it is always a tragedy when you lose someone in their mid 20s, but my father’s column betrayed no indication of Maude’s agony, or that a baby died or was born an orphan.

I imagine Malvina was heartbroken when she died in 1936. She’d lost her husband just a month before her own death and two years before she had buried her own child.

This item appeared in the New York Age, August 17, 1940, four years after Malvina, my grandmother died. It is the first and only mention I have found of Carmen.

Meanwhile, I had a delightful meeting with Barbados family historian Patricia Stafford Friday morning. She took copious notes on the Wray/Ray/Alkins clan and, with no guarantees, said she would try to find more on our family’s tree.

From Barbados, with love

24 May

Zuri Adele on Accra Beach, Barbados

CHRIST CHURCH, BARBADOS, May 24, 2012 — Zuri, my sister-in-law Tracy and I are in Barbados for a little R&R after a whirlwind Spelman Commencement Weekend. It also happens to be my father’s birthday. He would be 115.

In a column he published shortly after his 43rd birthday  in 1940, he uses the occasion to commemorate Empire Day, the birthday of Queen Victoria, with whom he shared a natal day:

“It is difficult  if not at all impossible for ye paragrapher to forget Empire Day, though we may be many years removed from the British Empire, because it was on that day our late beloved mother told us we ‘came from somewhere in a box.’ Most readers of this column think we should have been left in the box.”

Tomorrow, I have an appointment with a specialist in Barbados genealogy who is going to try to help me get to the bottom of that box.

For today we’ll take a tour of the island, hit the beach and pour a ibation in honor of Ebenezer’s birthday.

The New York Age, June 1, 1940

Zuri Adele: We knew her when

16 May

I’ve been looking for an excuse to post this video in this blog since I launched it. Now it seems like this is my last chance. My good friend Jack Hubbard shot it when my daughter Zuri, whom he calls “The Swan” graduated high school. I can’t believe it’s been four years.

On Sunday, Zuri Adele will graduate from Spelman College, BA in Theatre, Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude.

Ebenezer would have been proud.

She’s all grown up, but her essence has not changed. She is still, as the citation for the Gunn High School Faculty Cup Award, written by teacher Jessica Hawkins, stated:

“Observant, wise, generous and funny. All the light she shines makes the rest of us look better, want to ‘be’ better, on stage and off. She doesn’t steal scenes, she makes you want to give them to her – but she’d never abuse the privilege. She’s impossible not to watch and listen to: a live, beating heart with a ready mile-wide smile and the brains to back it up. The only consolation in her leaving is the understanding that she was meant for greatness beyond the boundaries of the school she’s already helped make great. She walks to a rhythm everyone wants to follow and the world will be a better place with her leading it.”

A Mother’s Day tribute

8 May

I queued this up a year ago just so I would remember to revisit it for Mother’s Day 2012. (Apparently, it went live several days ago.) My father never missed an opportunity to sing the praises of he mother, Malvina. It’s clear my grandmother was God-loving and generous to a fault. I wish I had a photo.

The New York Age May 20, 1933

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