Today we saw the ground-breaking show of "Oklahoma" at Portland Center Stage, with a nearly all African-American cast. I held back the tears at the standing ovation at the end and felt akin to seeing Barack Obama win the presidency.
It might be hard to believe, but I've actually never seen "Oklahoma" and didn't know what to expect, so I don't have any type of white cast in mind when I enter the theater. I was surprised by the sinister tones in the plot. Not surprisingly, the singing and acting talent of the cast was superb.
|Laurey and Curly|
|Ado Annie and Will|
What is more shocking to me is the fact that one in three cowboys were black...a statistic that very few people know. By 1900, 137,000 African-Americans were living in the Oklahoma territory, including in almost 50 all-black towns. The wealthiest enclave of African-American citizens lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The one moment in the show when I couldn't help but notice the African-American cast was the bizarre scene between Curly and Jud in the smokehouse, when Curly suggests that Jud kill himself by tying a noose around his neck and hanging himself on the rafter. He actually mimes this with a rope and noose, and I found that scene intensely discomforting because of the color of his skin and the sinister history in this country. Even with a white cast, the scene is bizarre--neither Mike nor I understood why Curly would suggest this to the brooding Jud--but it was even more uncomfortable with this cast. Having never seen the movie or another version of the play, I'm not sure what it would feel like with a white cast.
As part of the production, the cast members have been encouraged to document their feelings about being part of this show. As Rodney Hicks (Curly) wrote, "I take great pride in the fact that we are doing something very special and ultimately important to who we are, not just as black people but who we all are as Americans and all of our contributions to the history of this great country. With the end result being we’re no different. That is what makes this new production of Oklahoma! to me seem fresh, timely and ultimately universal, where at its heart and center is the universal theme of community and love. What is problematic in that?"
We greatly enjoyed our afternoon at the theater and highly endorse this production!